Is the smooth run for the Ardern government coming to an end? It is still riding high in the polls, but almost imperceptibly the mood appears to be changing.
Jacinda Ardern may still be enjoying a status few other prime ministers have attained but the fallibility of some of her ministers is coming more clearly into focus.
More particularly, where the government won so much kudos in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it now seems to have lost its magic touch.
Ardern herself appears to be becoming more defensive, pulling out of her regular slot on the Mike Hosking ZB programme.
The latest lockdowns accentuated the hardship inflicted on business, particularly in Auckland, and the rollout of the Covid vaccination programme has been disappointingly slow.
Where ministers before Christmas were boasting NZ would be in front of the queue for supplies of vaccines, by this week only 18,000 New Zealanders have received a shot. Contrast that with Israel where more than 50% of the population had been vaccinated by the beginning of this month, and 20 million UK citizens had received their shots.
Only this week, the government said it had secured “an advance purchase agreement” for 8.5m doses of the Pfizer vaccine. This is additional to the 1.5m already secured.
Ardern revealed this additional order would arrive—wait for it—in the second half of the year.
Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Parliament the government has not set a target for what proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated before it will relax border controls.
That means NZ won’t achieve the herd immunity status it is aiming until possibly next January.
What this means for businesses that are hanging on through the recent lockdowns is far from clear.
Whether the government has a plan to revive failing businesses – or even a plan to restore the economy to pre-pandemic levels – has yet to be disclosed. Maybe it is being held back to give substance to the budget.
Meanwhile the nation is waiting for some action on the housing front (though it appears the plight of the homeless will get worse before it gets better). Then there is the question how much deeper child poverty will become.
The ACT party this week highlighted what the government has failed to do by putting up a plan for the immediate next steps of NZ’s response to Covid-19, as well as a longer term strategy for living in a progressively vaccinated world—something it said the business community and others have been crying out for .
ACT Leader David Seymour says the plan responds to megatrends in the global COVID situation:
- Public fatigue
- New variants
“It makes 15 policy recommendations; seven immediate changes to get NZ to herd immunity without further lockdowns; five short term changes to prepare us for a post-vaccine world; and three medium term measures for how we can operate in the post-vaccine environment.”
Among seven proposed immediate changes which ACT says should be made are:
- Compulsory Covid-app use including Bluetooth functionality to improve contact tracing
- Introduce daily PCR saliva testing and the use of Datamine’s ëlarm technology to the border and MIQ workforce to alert them to early signs of infection
- Begin establishing an Epidemic Response Unit modelled off Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre to replace Covid-19 response leadership by the Ministry of Health
- Reactivate Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee
Short and medium-term measures designed to prepare NZ for the months and years ahead include:
- Progress work on a vaccine passport
- Rolling out wider use of screening tests
- Begin work on a Business Travel Network aligned with rules already promoting business travel to the likes of Singapore and Taiwan
- Beginning work on a Digital Fence system for some self-isolation, taking pressure off the existing MIQ network and introducing a risk-based traffic light system for MIQ.
- Seymour says this is a constructive playbook for the country – not a look through the rear view mirror but a look through the front windscreen at where we’re going.
“Nothing we’re suggesting here would necessarily take away from existing measures in place – this potentially enhances and adds to what we’re already doing.
“Investigating and doing these things requires the Government being prepared to put the effort and resources into them.
“Whatever that resource may be, ACT’s view is the cost will be considerably less than further lockdowns caused by inadequate security measures at the border, including far too infrequent testing and patchy contact tracing.
“ACT’s position all along has been to propose sound policy solutions to the challenges we face while holding the Government to account.”
ACT just wants to make the boat go faster, Seymour says.
Don’t we all?