Monday, 2 Oct 2023

Matthew Hooton: Govt’s sanguine stance on Omicron should have NZ worried


The chances of the Prime Minister’s wedding going ahead are falling, but not because the groom reportedly tried to persuade a pharmacist to give his music-industry mates a rapid Covid-19 test they weren’t eligible for.

The real threat to the nuptials is the Government’s Covid policy now effectively being “let it rip”.

This is denied, just as the Government denied in September it was moving from elimination to suppression. Watch for Jacinda Ardern to “utterly reject” she is comfortable with let it rip while her more fanatical online supporters viciously attack anyone who says otherwise.

Yet yesterday, ahead of Monday’s first prime-ministerial announcements of 2022, Beehive strategists were ruling out either a further tightening of border settings or abandoning the traffic light system and returning to alert levels, except under the most extreme circumstances.

That’s despite professors Michael Baker and Peter Davis arguing publicly we must immediately “turn down the tap” of overseas arrivals to avoid the imminent arrival of the highly contagious Omicron.

They and others are alarmed about the number of cases being caught at the border. In the week before the August 17 lockdown, just 35 border cases were discovered. In the last week, 208 were found, six times as many. Beehive strategists accept it is just a matter of time before an Omicron case is missed and creeps through. It could be today.

When that happens, Baker says the traffic light system isn’t fit to handle Omicron, having not been designed for outbreaks. It’s hard to disagree.

Anyone holidaying in Northland knows red involves very few restrictions in practice, with life indistinguishable from orange in the rest of New Zealand. Despite fears the police and Hone Harawira’s Tai Tokerau Border Control would cause gridlock at the Auckland-Northland border, there is no sign it exists at all.

In Baker’s view, the traffic lights should immediately be abandoned in favour of a tweaked level system.

Davis, who is also former Prime Minister Helen Clark’s husband, is even tougher. He says the New Zealand authorities “may have all but ‘thrown in the towel’ on preventing a community (and inevitably nationwide) outbreak of this particular variant of Covid in the immediate future”.

The Beehive is unmoved. It says Monday’s announcements are unlikely to include any tightening of the border, perhaps because it expects the High Court to rule that existing restrictions on New Zealand citizens already violate the Bill of Rights Act when the Grounded Kiwis case is heard in two weeks.

Despite Bakers’ concerns about the traffic lights, the Government says that — along with high vaccination rates — the system offers good protection through “public health measures such as social distancing, good hygiene, mask-wearing, gathering limits where necessary, and testing and isolating cases”, while allowing everyone else to go about their daily lives and businesses to stay open.

It says the Government stands by the Omicron plan Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced on December 21, which confirmed the traffic lights to manage Omicron, with only areas in which it is discovered moving to red.

Even those local moves are uncertain. Although conceding Omicron will spread fast when it inevitably arrives, Hipkins said only that the Government “may” use red lights to slow it down.

The Government, he said, does not intend to use lockdowns unless the health system comes under considerable strain. “Even then,” he said, “the strong preference is for the lockdown to be highly targeted.”

Beehive strategists say Monday’s announcements are likely to signal an aggressive campaign to encourage all eligible people to get a booster shot, and a gentler paediatrician-led vaccination campaign targeted at the parents of 5- to 11-year-olds. The Prime Minister will confirm that the already non-existent Auckland-Northland border has gone.

Business may welcome the Government’s commitment that the international border will remain at least as open as it is now and that even local lockdowns are an absolute last resort. But that means businesses also need to start planning for major workforce and supply-chain disruptions within weeks.

Beehive strategists say New Zealand’s existing public health measures and compliance are superior to those in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland or South Australia, so that comparisons with what is happening across the Tasman aren’t valid.

But even in the best performing of those states, South Australia, more than 1000 new cases have been reported every day since late December and there are now 190 people in hospital out of its population of just 1.8 million, including 27 in ICU. That’s the equivalent of over 3000 new cases every day in New Zealand, with well over 500 people in hospital and nearly 80 in ICU.

Those numbers are five or six times higher than we experienced at Delta’s peak in November. If we follow New South Wales’ experience, we’d currently have around 210,000 active cases, including 1500 in hospital, 115 in ICU and 40 on ventilators. Ardern passively waiting for this is a let-it-rip strategy.

For business, it’s short-term case numbers that matter most. While perhaps only half of positive cases will experience symptoms, all are required to isolate.

Worse from a human-resources and supply-chain perspective, everyone else in their household must also remain home. Once the positive case has been released from isolation, the remaining household members must isolate for a further 10 days, meaning they will be isolated even longer than the original positive case.

This may sound no worse for business than what happened during lockdown. But that ignores that half a million essential workers kept going to work under the old level 4. Under level 3, it was 1.2 million, nearly half the workforce. This time, those essential workers won’t be going to work, either because they are sick, test positive despite being asymptomatic, or live with someone who is.

While no one will starve, this has already disrupted food distribution in Australia, including basics like bread, milk and meat. People unable to work will include doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, so that most non-Covid health services will be suspended.

It will include teachers, despite schools being scheduled to open in a little over two weeks. Your children’s plan to return to school is as at risk as the Prime Minister’s big bash.

University summer school will be disrupted, as well as the start of semester one.

It’s amazing the Beehive remains so sanguine.Family occasions, non-urgent healthcare, education and businesses are at immediate risk.

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