Cabinet’s challenge is to strike the right balance between halting contagion and getting Kiwis back to work

Finance Minister Grant Robertson trots out the phrase “go hard, go early”  in the battle against  Covid-19,  as  often as he used to declare  the  underlying fundamentals of  the  NZ  economy  are  “strong”.

Meanwhile   Health Minister  David  Clark   says   responding to  Covid-19   is a  “marathon,  not a  sprint”.

But  New Zealand  didn’t  “go early”.   The  Ministry  of   Health  on  January  24,  the  day after China  locked down  the  huge  city of  Wuhan because of the  outbreak of the disease,  said the  likelihood of a  sustained outbreak in  NZ  is  “low”.

It maintained that  line for  a month.  There was no  visible sign of the  ministry calling on ministers to scale up  stocks of relevant equipment, take precautions in retirement  homes,   or   increase the  number of Intensive Care Unit beds  and ventilators.

When  NZ  recorded  its first  case  of  Covid-19  on  February 28,  Clark  told Parliament  NZ  was using the  approach  recommended  by the  World  Health Organisation of  containment,  using   three main tools :  border   controls,  self-isolation,  and good public   health controls.  So  far,  he said,  NZ had been the best at  keeping Covid-19 at  bay.

We have a strong public health system. We continue to  work to keep Covid-19  out, but  we are  ready if it arrives in  our community.”

 Just a fortnight  later   NZ  moved  into one of the most  restrictive lockdowns of    any  country.  The Prime Minister claimed then that if strong action was not taken against the spread of the virus, NZ’s health system would be overwhelmed and tens of thousands would die.

“If community transmission takes off in NZ, the number of cases will double every five days.  If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of NZers will die”.

There has been no  sign of  those   tens  of  thousands  dying,  but the  economy  has  crashed – GDP is plunging and  NZ  faces  the worst  unemployment  for  more than 10 years.

So  now,  as   the country   awaits  a  decision  on     whether   the lockdown  will   move down  from level four to   level  three,  Cabinet   may   be a  prisoner of   its  own rhetoric. It has  set  “elimination”  as  the  vital  goal — so elimination it has to be.

Now the  political  imperative  is to  preserve  the illusion  it  knew what it   was  doing when it  imposed  a  lockdown  more  severe  than, say,  Australia.   Any  swerve  in direction now    would be to admit it had been  wrong.

Yet  it  could be  argued  that  Cabinet    should   at  least consider  regionalisation.

Could   not those   free of   community  transmission be permitted  to relax  below  level three?     Regions – for  example – like the  West  Coast  suffering severely  from  the  destruction of the tourist industry?

That  would  be a  relief   for  towns  like Westport  where   300  miners could get back to work at the Stockton mine.

Only  last week  Robertson  was  saying  NZ  had  “acted  swiftly and  decisively to stamp out Covid-19”  because  that was  the best  way to protect   the  economy.

But the  problem  for  Cabinet  is   to  decide   whether  Covid-19 has  actually been  “stamped out”.   If there  is a second wave, as  there  has been  in places  like  Hong Kong, and  Singapore,  will  NZ  go  back  to a   level  4  lockdown?

What would the chances of  economic  recovery  be  then?

Dole queues  threaten  to  be  longer than  any  government   could  contemplate.  Even major companies  face  a  liquidity  challenge.  As   much as  30%  of  the small business  sector   has  fallen  over a  cliff.

Roger  Partridge, chairman of the NZ Initiative, says at some point the harm to wellbeing of Kiwis from continuing the lockdown becomes greater than the wellbeing benefit of continuing it.

Indeed, that time may have already passed”.

The Prime Minister, as he pointed out, claimed  last week  that the ‘essential services’ approach was being abandoned for Alert Level 3 in favour of a

” … safety-based” approach.

Yet by prohibiting shops other than supermarkets, dairies and garages to open, the new approach continues a significant dose of the former blunt approach. Why is the local butcher, baker or clothes shop less safe than the local dairy?

“It was also disappointing that the Prime Minister did not reveal the criteria for the government’s decisions to move away from Alert Level 4, and then from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2.   Uncertainty is a curse for businesses and workers alike.

New Zealanders deserve better than this.  Workers, firms and consumers should not be at the mercy of such disjointed decision-making”.

Academics  have praised the  “brilliant, decisive and humane leadership”  of   the  Prime  Minister.  But the  same academics also said that – in their view – the case for a tougher lockdown in NZ than in Australia rested on the fact that

“ … NZ has had to go to this strong, intense, lockdown, because it started from a pretty low base.  It didn’t have really sophisticated systems for mass contact tracing…Things like basic contact tracing were working better in Australia from earlier on.

Of  course   there  is a tension  between  health, and  economic, policies.  It might not, as  the London Economist put it   early in the pandemic,  be a fair  fight.

But it is vital  to strike the right balance.   That’s what  Cabinet has  to do this week.

The punters out there  might  demand long odds if asked to  lay a bet  that it  will.

5 thoughts on “Cabinet’s challenge is to strike the right balance between halting contagion and getting Kiwis back to work

  1. No, we did not “go hard and early”. America closed its borders before we did, to cries of “racism” and “xenophobia”. We were held hostage to Ardern’s desire for a photo opp in Christchurch on 15 March. When that was cancelled at the last minute we were informed of the alert levels and plunged into level 4 a few days later. But our borders were’t effectively quarantined until well after that. Despite these shortcomings we seem from the daily tallies to be making progress. But we still have no idea how many potentially infectious people are out there in the community. The testing being done over the weekend is statistically insignificant and insufficient to guide Cabinet. We need to do at least 100,000 tests, not 1500. Nevertheless I believe we should move to level 3.5, perhaps after ANZAC weekend, to allow the construction sector, forestry and specialist shops like butchers and greengrocers to open, under strict hygiene and social distancing regulations. Schools should remain closed however as children are very efficient transmitters of infection. If we relax too much too early we risk the disease coming at us again from within the community and suppressing it will be so much harder and the damage to the economy so much worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What truth is there to the story the auto quarantine rules for international arrivals started once Ardern’s parents arrived back from Tokelau to ride out the lock down at Premier House?


    1. That story has been repeated a few times on various social media sites. Seeing as there are people employed by ‘The Gov’t’ to monitor such sites and that there has not been a rebuttal and that no MSM journalist has written anything, I would guess that there is likely to be credibility to the story.


  3. Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    IMHO the Ardern regime has failed across the board and is reliant on sycophantic media to burnish their image. Leadership, rational policy and consistecncy have been lacking. This post draws attnetion to some key points


  4. Your headline”Cabinetes Challenge…” juxtaposes “Health” & “Economics”. The US study of the 1918 epidemic clearly shows that those states and cities that responded early and intensely got both better health AND better economic outcomes. Do you misrepresent the available information knowingly or unknowingly?
    Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health
    Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu
    Sergio Correia, Stephan Luck, and Emil Verner*
    This draft: April 10, 2020; First draft: March 26, 2020
    What are the economic consequences of an influenza pandemic? And given the
    pandemic, what are the economic costs and benefits of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI)? Using geographic variation in mortality during the 1918 Flu Pandemic in
    the U.S., we find that more exposed areas experience a sharp and persistent decline
    in economic activity. The estimates imply that the pandemic reduced manufacturing
    output by 18%. The downturn is driven by both supply and demand-side channels.
    Further, building on findings from the epidemiology literature establishing that NPIs
    decrease influenza mortality, we use variation in the timing and intensity of NPIs
    across U.S. cities to study their economic effects. We find that cities that intervened
    earlier and more aggressively do not perform worse and, if anything, grow faster after
    the pandemic is over. Our findings thus indicate that NPIs not only lower mortality;
    they may also mitigate the adverse economic consequences of a pandemic.


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