Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s release of a four-step “roadmap” out of Covid last week inevitably led to questions to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to produce her road map.
Ardern showed little appetite for rushing to follow: with good reason.
Morrison’s so-called roadmap was derided for being all road but not much map.
It had destinations, but lacked key coordinates: the timelines within which each step would take place, and the levels of vaccination required for steps such as ending the use of lockdowns and exempting vaccinated travellers.
Despite demands for Ardern to follow suit, if Ardern put one out now it would by necessity be just as vague and immediately criticised as an empty political exercise.
Ardern’s roadmap, when it comes, will almost inevitably look a bit the same – a plan to stagger reopening the borders to vaccinated travellers with no or shorter quarantine periods, and to respond to outbreaks differently.
There have been questions since the very beginning of Covid-19 about when and how to emerge from Fortress NZ.
People need certainty and Governments need to set out what might happen – and what needs to happen to achieve it. Such plans also give people a glimpse of hope: and manage expectations.
But Ardern is at ease with her lack of haste, not least because the public also seem to be in no big hurry.
Polling continues to show very high levels of concern about Covid-19 entering New Zealand and a high degree of trust in the handling of it.
Ardern intends to set out a strategy for New Zealand later in the year, which will involve a far more nuanced and flexible approach to quarantine.
Work has been going on behind the scenes as the Government and its advisory groups work on a “reconnecting with the world” strategy.
Options being looked at in that work include allowing vaccinated New Zealanders to quarantine at home instead of in MIQ.
Another option is a one-week quarantine period for vaccinated people and those from safe “green zone” countries, instead of two weeks.
That would be combined with testing, before and after. It would free up more space in MIQ for workers and others.
And the biggest problem in the here and now are those worker shortages, which are only getting worse and cover multiple sectors from horticulture to auditors.
Consideration is also being given to some kind of an economic or business category in the vaccines rollout, allowing business people whose work involves international travel to get priority in vaccinations once Group 4 begins.
It is fair enough to ask Ardern when New Zealand will move on these things – but Ardern is also justified in taking an “open in haste, repent at leisure” view to these things.
There is political risk in delivering a picture of the road ahead, only for a new variant to come along and slam a massive pothole in it.
The biggest risk to such plans is the impact of new variants.
The havoc the Delta variant has caused in other countries, including those with relatively high vaccination rates, highlighted just how vulnerable New Zealand was.
At the least, those more infectious variants are likely to mean a higher level of vaccination coverage is needed to hit “herd immunity”. Some have suggested that could be as high as 90 per cent – a very high threshold.
The worst scenario is that a new variant outstrips the power of vaccinations, and sends us back to the start.
In the meantime, Ardern is under more pressure over the pace of the vaccines rollout in the here and now than over what might happen at the end of it. But the pace of that rollout will also determine just when New Zealand can embark on its roadmap.
The main disadvantage of being at the tail end of the global rollout was illustrated by the outbreaks of Delta variant.
It would have easily rampaged through unprotected New Zealand, with only about 9 per cent coverage.
But it also has its advantages.
The most notable is the one the PM pointed to this week: countries at the front of the queue inevitably get to a point where they have to start trying aspects of normal life again.
Ardern is more than happy to let those other countries be the guinea pigs.
Countries with high vaccination rates are starting to test a “living with Covid” mode.
Canada has decided to allow quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated Canadians. Ontario has set out a staged relaxation of restrictions, depending on level of vaccination.
The United Kingdom has removed many restrictions – albeit with PM Boris Johnson’s warning that cases could escalate in the short term.
Singapore too is moving to handle outbreaks differently and allow more at-home quarantine.
Ardern is watching closely the success or otherwise of those before making her own moves.
Those other countries have described “life with Covid” as akin to living with the flu.
The new variants have meant it has been a while since the PM re-stated her previous belief that one day Covid-19 would be treated the same as the flu.
That remains the hope – but the new variants have raised a question mark over just how soon it will be a reality.
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