Claire Trevett: Reopening NZ is not only about vaccinations. Has the Government dragged the chain in doing its bit?

OPINION:

Throughout the year, Australia and New Zealand have been in a drag race on the vaccinations rollout.

The political pressure – and the Delta outbreak in Australia – has seen Australia pull finger and overtake us. And Australia’s PM, Scott Morrison, was clearly keen to let everybody know.

He issued a Facebook post boasting 5.3 million vaccines had been doled out in Australia in one month: “That’s more than the entire population of New Zealand,” it crowed.

“We’re getting this done, Australia.”

It was probably quite satisfying for Morrison – but it is an almost meaningless race, given both countries have the same endpoint for the first rollout at the end of the year.

It is also meaningless because both countries are at the same stage of their “roadmaps” out of their Covid silos: the vaccinate anything that moves stage.

The next drag race will not necessarily be one Ardern will want to win. It is the race to open the borders.

Ardern presented her equivalent to Morrison’s plan for that on Thursday.

One of the key differences was that Morrison set certain vaccination rate thresholds which would trigger moves such as allowing quarantine-free travel for some.

Ardern may have been wise not to follow suit, as it gives her more flexibility to change the plan without being accused of failing to deliver what she promised. If you can’t guarantee certainty, don’t pretend.

Ardern has been under some pressure not to be too timid about her plan after her cautious nature led us through the first year in good shape.It was not too timid – and some have queried whether that was because Labour was moving downwards in the polls.

Ardern herself had pointed to the hard grind of Covid-19 being behind it.

But Ardern is hardly going to make reckless decisions to save a few points in the polls in the short term.There is a big difference between scrapping an unpopular cycle bridge and rushing into opening the borders simply because frustration was building against her government. It will be much more important to have delivered a safe reopening sometime next year.

The plan, as it sits on paper, is well and good.

It is bold enough to satisfy those who thought the PM would err on the side of caution forever and a day, but there are enough checks to pull the pin if the plan is thwarted by Covid-19 or proves too difficult.

As with Morrison, Ardern has been at pains to emphasise the fruition of the plan depends on people getting vaccinated.

And Ardern clearly hopes to make up lost ground in the rollout by throwing it open to all comers from early September.

But even if everybody in New Zealand got vaccinated tomorrow, the borders could not open because the Government has not yet done its bit. It needs the time to get things sorted – some of which should arguably already have been sorted.

Both the health report and the plan make it clear it is not only the vaccination rate that could hinder whether we can reopen the borders.

It will also depend on the borders and health system being ready for it. That is stuff that can only be done by the Government and so the Government will be blamed if they are not done.

Eighteen months after Covid-19 arrived it has to be asked if the Government has dropped the ball in that regard.

The most obvious example is that the Government’s health advisory group noted ICU capacity in our hospitals was stretched even before Covid-19 arrived, and had not improved much since. It was one of the reasons we could not afford to give up elimination yet.

That report raised the prospect of a double-banger of a flu outbreak and a Covid-19 outbreak next winter. It concluded the country’s intensive care units would fall well short of what was needed.

And that is a failure of the Government.

Quite why the Government has not already moved on that is a mystery. It is now on the to-do list for the near future, but it takes time to line up the capacity and the staff required.

The Government also has to move on to getting quick testing technology at the border, working out how home isolation might work (yes, they are considering home detention-style electronic anklets) and what the alert levels will look like under higher vaccination rates.

Early next year, the booster programme will need to start. There are few signs the Government has prepared for that as yet – all Ardern has said is there will be enough leftover vaccines from the first rollout to start the boosters. But it could be critical in keeping the borders open and other countries have already ordered.

A portion of the country will remain unvaccinated either because they are too young, cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons, or simply refuse to.

The report and Ardern have acknowledged it will almost be inevitable that cases of Covid-19 will pop up once travel is allowed again.

A lot of effort will be put into trying to get needles into reluctant arms once all the willing are done.

There is already something of a blame mentality developing toward people who have no intention of getting the jabs, and whether they will ruin it for everybody else.

But the to-do list for the Government over the next five or six months is a lot longer than the “get a vaccination” list for the rest of us.

If it ends up being the Government rather than the unvaccinated who holds things up, it will hurt Labour.


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