Government relaxes covid restrictions – the end of an error?

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By Dr Bryce Edwards

The chaos, disruption and suffering brought about by Covid is far from over, but there’s now a sense that, politically, the virus has finished. The pandemic has dominated the political agenda for two years, and with yesterday’s announcement of a significant loosening of restrictions, it feels like an “end of an era”.

We will continue to debate the last two years of Covid management, and there are many who regard the Government’s decision yesterday as an incautious and poll-driven error but, by and large, the mood seems to be one of relief. It’s not “mission accomplished”, but it’s “time to move on”.

The ideological shift from Covid protectionism to laissez-faire

There’s always been a heavy ideological dimension to this. The diverse political options for managing the pandemic were spread out on a spectrum from hard-line protectionism through to a looser orientation of “learning to live with Covid”. Yesterday’s Government announcements were a very deliberate shift along that spectrum, from protectionism towards deregulation.

In this sense, the politics of managing Covid has always entailed many different policy options – correlating somewhat with the left-right dimension that we often understand politics by in this country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her administration started out in 2020 at what seemed like one end of the spectrum – in favour of heavy restrictions and an elimination approach. This was strongly informed and endorsed by health professionals, and the Green Party was very much onside. It felt like a leftwing approach that put the health of the public first.

At the other end of the spectrum there were always those, especially in the business community and on the political right, who wanted to “learn to live with the virus” and an insistence we could somehow “return to normal”. National and Act have generally aligned more with this approach – arguably to National’s cost in the 2020 election.

Over recent months, as circumstances have changed with a highly vaccinated public and Omicron’s relentless march, it seems that both the public and the Labour Government have been travelling along that political spectrum, from left to right, becoming less convinced of the need for a hard-line Covid protectionist approach and more accepting of opening up the country and living with Covid.

Jacinda Ardern has personified that shift. She was originally all about “going hard and early” on Covid, and about “the team of five million”. More recently, you’d struggle to find such sentiments. Yesterday she spoke more about how exhausted everyone was with that approach and how we needed to find a new normal.

So with yesterday’s announcements, has the Government ended up being in the optimal place on that Covid spectrum?

It’s inevitable that those on the left and right of Labour will dissent and express disappointment that the Government is being too restrictive or not restrictive enough. Of course, the Government will take some satisfaction in the notion that by being in the middle of this spectrum, with complaints to the left and right, they’ve probably got the compromise about right.

Certainly, most public commentators are in a consensus that the Government has read the public mood correctly. For example, Herald political editor Claire Trevett says that the loosening of restrictions will result in some public anxiety, but that “acceptance will be more widespread than the fear”. She argues that New Zealand is successfully “living with Covid” already, and the impact of the more restrictive measures like mandates and passes “were responsible for stretching – and tearing – the unity that was so critical in Ardern’s handling of the pandemic’s first two years.”

Trevett suggests that unhappiness about the mandates and passes has been growing, as even vaccinated people become more sympathetic to the plight of the unvaccinated whose lives have been severely impacted and who have felt marginalised by society.

Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass also seems to approve of the announcement, saying “some of the most divisive and now pointless elements of the system are being dismantled.” He thinks there will be general positivity about the end of most mandates and vaccine passes, saying the “announcements were of life-changing importance to a small group of New Zealanders who, for whatever reason, chose not to be or were unable to be vaccinated. But for most, it’s ending small nuisances.”

Was the end of Covid restrictions due to public opinion?

Polls and public opinion undoubtedly played a part in yesterday’s decision. There is plenty of evidence to show that the public was tiring of various elements of Covid restrictions – from MIQ through to QR code scanning. And the 1News poll putting National ahead of Labour two weeks ago would have given extra impetus to Labour to make changes.

Mostly, the public appears to want to move on. Curia Research polling has shown that Covid is no longer the main issue for the public – with a big drop in those citing it as the main issue for the country – down from 22 per cent in October to just 8 per cent this month. People are moving on to the next big problems, such as the cost of living.

For the Government to react to this societal change is not necessarily a bad thing. Leaders need to be attuned to what the public want and to what extent there is social licence for restrictions, and therefore compliance.

The notion that the Government is still “following the science” is not necessarily true, however. And, of course, this was always overstated. As today’s Otago Daily Times editorial says, there is a need for governments to take other factors into account: The politicians, however, have the wider picture and are accountable. It is up to the Government to, again and again, perform the tricky balancing act between competing rights, requirements and needs.”

One would hope, however, that political expediency isn’t the main driver. Similarly, although the Government denies it, there will be an ongoing suspicion that the anti-mandate protests at Parliament had some impact on the decision to wind them back so quickly.

Opposition to liberalisation

The Government is now more out of step with epidemiologists than at any other time during the pandemic. Siouxie Wiles and Michael Baker, among others, have spoken of their disappointment, emphasising the risk of the liberalising moves.

The Green Party is also dissenting from its coalition partner, drawing attention especially to vulnerable communities being put at risk by Labour’s decision.

Newsroom’s Marc Daalder complains today that “the Government has decided a certain level of disease burden and death is acceptable, in exchange for freer economic and social lives.”

He argues the Government has got it wrong in viewing their restrictions as being responsible for the economic downturn, especially in the hospitality sector. Instead, he argues, the downturn is simply due to the public’s legitimate fear of catching the virus.

And he suggests that, even with the lifting of government restrictions, we’re unlikely to see anything like a “return to normal” in eateries and bars. He ponders whether the repeal will make things worse for hospitality – given that without vaccine passes, customers now have to fear mixing with the unvaccinated.

Daalder also argues that the Government has made a big mistake in removing restrictions from the traffic light system, leaving the country ill-prepared for the need for such mechanisms if the need arises.

He warns it’s naïve to think we are shifting back to a safer “new normal”, when New Zealand is likely to settle back into something like 4,000 cases a day once we are out of the current peak. He asserts: “It can still threaten our health system and it can still leave patients with long-lasting, debilitating conditions.”

Of course, there is also an element of dissent from those on the political right. Although the National and Act parties generally agreed with Labour’s decision yesterday, they argue in favour of even greater loosening of the rules, asking whether the traffic light system really needs to stay in place.

Those on the political right also ask whether yesterday’s announcements could have come much earlier, given that the main justifications for loosening restrictions were essentially about the shift from the Delta variant to Omicron, which began in October. National and Act now argue for a greater emphasis on mask wearing and limits on crowds.

Although yesterday might mark an end of a political era, there does need to be continued debate and evaluation about what New Zealand got right and wrong during the last two years.

There is no doubt that amongst the important successes and competencies of Government there have also been some major failings – from the very slow vaccine roll-out, major problems with testing and contact tracing, through to the lack of ICU preparedness.

These shouldn’t be glossed over, especially because the huge problems of Covid are going to be with us for many years yet. With that in mind, it seems that a Royal Commission of Inquiry is now essential.

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