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.