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A sigh of relief as NZ seems to dodge the worst

For now, New Zealand seems to have dodged a Covid-shaped bullet - but there are plenty of hard questions to be asked in the coming weeks, Sam Sachdeva writes

You could almost hear five million sets of lungs exhaling in unison.

A week ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that Auckland would be under Level 3 Covid-19 restrictions for two weeks, with the rest of the country at Level 2 for the duration, would have been almost unthinkable to many Kiwis.

But in the circumstances - a new outbreak in our largest city, with no clear idea of its origin or duration - the news was about as good as could have been hoped for.

The critical factor in the Government’s decision is the containment of the outbreak to, as far as we know, a single cluster, with 29 of the 30 new community cases having confirmed links and the sole outlier likely to be connected once further investigation takes place.

Health officials had also found the cluster “relatively early in its life”, Ardern said, with the earliest case identified so far on July 31, a worker at the Americold cool store in Auckland which has been a key vector for transmission.

While it was close to a best-case scenario in the circumstances, so much will depend on what contact tracing and testing reveals in the coming days, as Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield noted: the number of new cases, their geographical spread, and the close contacts associated with each positive test.

But the hunt for a “patient zero” may prove elusive, Ardern warned: genomic testing had found no links to prior community cases in the country, nor to managed isolation and quarantine facilities and other border workers.

“We also know, based on overseas experience and our own, that it is possible to contain a cluster or outbreak without ever being able to identify its origin. What is important, is making sure that we establish the perimeter of the cluster, and stop it from growing.”

Holes in the border?

That is true, but it will not suffice in ensuring we avoid a repeat if indeed we can stamp out this latest cluster.

Media investigations have uncovered clear deficiencies in the testing of staff at the border, with Health Minister Chris Hipkins conceding on Friday that tests should have been conducted earlier and more frequently.

We have been told repeatedly by experts that a rigorous border regime is critical to maintaining our freedoms within the country, compared to the rest of the world. As with earlier problems at isolation and quarantine facilities, any holes must be discovered swiftly and patched up.

The Government must also do what it can to ensure resentment does not build up between Aucklanders stuck in their homes, and those across the rest of New Zealand enjoying much more freedom.

Asked whether the “team of five million” that had stuck together during the initial lockdown was at danger of fraying, Ardern did her best to encourage solidarity.

“Not everyone in a team is on the field at the same time, and you know, some of us currently are on the sidelines, really rooting for those who are experiencing that level of restriction.”

The best move may be to let the Electoral Commission use its own emergency powers to delay voting due to “an unforeseen or unavoidable disruption”, following consultation with both the prime minister and opposition leader - acting as a guard against accusations of partisanship.

The extension of the wage subsidy - nationwide, not just in Auckland - will also help to ease economic pain in the City of Sails, but it is less easy to compensate for the loss of certain liberties, albeit in the name of the greater good.

Still to be resolved is the issue of the September 19 election, namely whether it should be delayed given the inability of political parties to campaign as they normally would.

Ardern said she would use all the time available to her before making a call ahead of Parliament’s rescheduled dissolution on Monday, but whichever way she goes it is likely to attract some criticism.

Ploughing ahead as planned is understandable given the possibility of a similar or worse outbreak in the future, but it also gives the Prime Minister a heightened incumbency advantage as she takes the stage at daily press conferences to deliver messages of hope.

Delaying until later in the year, or even 2021, would deal with that immediate problem but raise others given the financial commitments that have already been made around the September 19 date, and the question of what would happen were another outbreak to occur close to the new polling day.

The best move may be to let the Electoral Commission use its own emergency powers to delay voting due to “an unforeseen or unavoidable disruption”, following consultation with both the prime minister and opposition leader - acting as a guard against accusations of partisanship.

Winston Peters would do well to avoid the same misinformation he has attacked National for spreading. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

To be honest, the possibility of more weeks or even months of the current crop does not fill the heart with joy, given how many have hardly covered themselves in glory recently.

National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee has offered some mild atonement for his disgraceful fear-mongering earlier in the week, but the party has yet to offer a sufficient explanation for the “interesting facts” it chose to share.

Then there is Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, eager to put the boot in over National’s “steady stream of misinformation” yet all too happy himself to share unverified, unofficial rumours about the origin of the latest outbreak to an Australian media outlet.

Peters has a curious habit of assuming his interviews with foreign journalists will magically be quarantined at our border, but that is hardly an excuse for such reckless and, frankly, stupid behaviour.

Asked about the propriety of his comments, Ardern largely resorted to evasion before slipping in a snide dig at the media.

“I believe that he was reflecting information passed on from a journalist, so perhaps we could ask the question equally on that side.”

Had that journalist reported the information without verification, that would be fair; no such story appears to have been published, suggesting the exchange with Peters was either unhelpful yet relatively innocuous gossip, or an attempt to seek official confirmation from a senior member of government.

That Ardern has yet again proved unwilling or unable to discipline her coalition partner is hardly surprising, but it is still disappointing nonetheless.

In the current circumstances, we would all do well to take a breath and think before acting rashly - and Cabinet ministers are no exception.

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