NZ does better than Australia at Covid messaging but signals a different approach

Jacinda Ardern’s government got better press than Scott Morrison’s when it announced details of its ‘reopening’ strategy earlier this week.

This may seem a surprise given that both governments have no immediate plans to actually reopen – rather the contrary in fact.

But the underlying intent in each case seems markedly different.

Morrison’s message is tighter controls now as the price for a return to normality in the near future.  The timeline given signals commitment to a goal, rather than to specific dates.

The New Zealand message – suitably hedged – is ‘maybe never’.  

The government’s advice is that while Covid can’t be kept out of New Zealand, outbreaks can probably be suppressed by the application of a battery of familiar controls.

Kiwis might want to reflect on the implications of this.

Most countries are exploring the mix of public health interventions needed to supplement and shape the public’s (evolving) behaviour to keep the disease within appropriate boundaries.  The Wall Street Journal, for example, reports that Israel “delivers more booster shots, restores mask and quarantine mandates as Delta variant drives up hospitalizations”.

Where these boundaries end up is unclear – but it’s likely that over time more decisions will be made using standard public health cost-benefit analyses.

The New Zealand approach sounds a little more like ‘whatever it takes’.  Which would give the government the job of designing New Zealanders’ lives to ensure that happens.

This would represent a pretty significant policy divergence.  Yes – China’s government has arrogated this right to itself and says people love it, but that may not be the best advertisement.  

It’s also true that the government’s public health advice gives them an out by arguing that it’s too early to sacrifice the possibility of managing the disease to the lowest conceivable levels. But you can’t help fretting that Ardern and her colleagues have a taste for controlling people’s lives to achieve state-approved goals.

In the broader context, the last twenty years might be seen as a period of erosion of the post-1990s deregulatory settlement: faster under left-wing parties, slower under the right.  The current government seems interested in exploring the opportunities presented by Covid to take this further.

Controls are irritating and, over time, erode choice and prosperity.  The best and brightest tend to be particularly sensitive to them.  Controls grow in response to a perceived need but can be swept away should the public twig – as in the aftermath of the second world war – that the goal they are supposed to achieve is not strictly achievable.

New Zealand’s status as Covid policy outlier looks set to continue for a while yet.

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