Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Shane Te Pou – Is it time for incentives for the vaccine-shy?

OPINION:

If, like me, you spend a bit too much time on social media, especially in lockdown, you would think New Zealand’s Covid strategy is the subject of intense controversy.

What’s more, the need to fill the news void with pandemic opinions creates a similar impression across more traditional media outlets. In fact, the number of positions taken by high-profile, non-expert pundits on the Government’s pandemic response comfortably exceeds the number of Kiwis actually infected by Covid.

Have you ever found yourself stuck next to someone at a rugby match who spends the whole time in a state of permanent agitation, badgering the ref over offside plays and forward passes that somehow only he managed to spot from the sidelines? That’s what most Covid commentary sounds like to me: one-eyed, bad faith, ill-informed and angry.

But most Kiwis aren’t reffing from the stands. Oblivious to the daily pandemic pantomime keeping the Extremely Online occupied, news cycle by news cycle, they’re calmly keeping their eye on the scoreboard.

By comfortable margins, we have backed the Government’s approach from the outset. According to research undertaken in June, only 12 per cent give its Covid policies a fail mark, a staggeringly low number when you consider the scale, complexity and far-reaching impacts of a national pandemic plan.

But the research, conducted by TRA for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, also offers insights into why New Zealanders feel this way – and, no, it’s not that we’ve been bamboozled by slick PR. When asked “how different do you feel your life is now, compared to before Covid-19?”, 31 per cent of those surveyed replied “at least a bit worse”; 39 per cent said no difference; and 27 per cent said “at least a bit better”.

That’s right: 15 months deep into the worst global health crisis in more than a century, the number of Kiwis who feel worse off as a result exceeds the number who feel better off … by four percentage points. Roughly the margin of error.

As long as the real-world impacts on people’s lives remain this muted, no amount of gotcha questions or semantic quibbling over what elimination means is likely to shift the needle.

Community sentiment like this creates a reservoir of trust and goodwill the Government must not be shy to draw from as we move on to opening the country up.

The goal is clear: get vaccinations as high as possible, so we can safely reopen the borders to vaccinated, tested travellers and won’t get big Covid outbreaks.

We need to get over 90 per cent, including for children under 12 once approved.

That’s harder than it sounds. While 80 per cent of people over 12 have been vaccinated or are booked, and another 10 per cent say they will probably do so, 5 per cent say they probably won’t, and 5 per cent are hardcore anti-vaxxers.

International evidence shows that stragglers are hard to budge. Israel is often pointed to as a world leader in its vaccine rollout, but after a huge early surge, the percentage of fully vaccinated Israelis reached 60 per cent in May and has risen only seven percentage points in the months since.

The existing playbook won’t suffice if we really want to reach the 90-plus goal.

Is it time to offer more leeway to employers on vaccine mandates? A barber mate of mine has two staff who refuse to get vaccinated, but he’s stuck with them in a business where close personal contact is unavoidable. He can require vaccines for future staff, but current laws put his business at risk unless he’s willing to expose customers to risk.

There’s scope for creativity here. The US airline Delta stopped short of a mandate for its employees, but a $200 fine for unvaccinated workers was enough to prompt a five-fold increase in the pace of vaccine uptake. Across the board, employer mandates are proving effective, and fears of mass resignations or firings are not coming to pass.

Alongside finding ways to protect workplaces against the unvaccinated, we need to overcome squeamishness on the question of vaccine passports.

Look at France, where 60 per cent of the population expressed vaccine hesitancy as recently as December 2020. In the month following President Emmanuel Macron’s introduction of a “health pass” in July, the share of French people having received at least one jab, currently at 74 per cent, overtook those of the US, Germany, Italy, Israel and the UK. Anti-vaxxers have taken to the streets, but the overwhelming majority of French citizens are voting with their sleeves.

There remains an imperative to properly resource Māori and Pasifika providers who are best equipped to challenge vaccine hesitancy within their own communities. If it takes kanohi-ki-kanohi outreach, so be it.

The stakes for all of us make it worth doing.

The Team of Five Million has shown admirable patience throughout the tribulations of lockdown. But it’s wearing thin when it comes to vaccine stragglers and their selfish, self-indulgent antics. Carrots only get you so far. It’s time for some stick.

Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.


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