Comment

The team of five million is splintering

Broadcaster Ryan Bridge will write a weekly column for Newsroom during the election campaign. Today, is the Prime Minister's lockdown strategy worth the price?

Updated: The team of five million is splintering and there are early signs Jacinda Ardern’s campaign that wasn’t a campaign for re-election is wobbling.

It’s becoming abundantly clear the Prime Minister’s sworn mission of stamping Covid-19 out of New Zealand is neither sustainable nor the right thing, morally, to do.

I’ve had business owners call me this week in tears at the fact their enterprise is again on skid row. Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult told me businesses there will fold because the resort town’s largest source of domestic tourists, Aucklanders, can’t leave the house let alone attempt a day’s skiing. A call from Kaikoura confirmed people were chanting “f**k the lockdown” in unison and spontaneously while queuing in a local store following Ardern’s Tuesday press conference.

The evidence has been just as damning.

Level Four was a body blow for business. The Productivity Commission found the extra five days we spent at Level Four the first time came with a net cost of around $749 million, which it said translates to 22,700, quality-adjusted, life years. That was just five days’ worth. That Commission figure has been contested by Professor Shaun Hendy of the University of Auckland and others.

Even at Level Three in Auckland, ASB says Ardern’s approach is costing us half a billion bucks a week. 

Worse still is the uncertainty it creates for business. Uncertainty is like cancer to free enterprise and it can spread rapidly. Firms stop investing, stop hiring, stop planning and start acting with caution to preserve their arteries.

Those small and medium sized businesses able to hang on with the help of government subsidies for the first round are now asking themselves how long this can go on.

It’s not just commerce that takes a whack, either. Some 30,000 elective surgeries were delayed because of the first lockdown and some have still not caught up. The Southern District Health Board estimated it would take up to six months to clear, and require the help of the private sector.

The economic and social costs are too high. Her supporters argue Ardern’s approach doesn’t necessarily need endless lockdowns… in theory we can keep our borders secure, contact trace and test, remember?

Reality Check

We need look no further than our own backyard to see that Covid will regularly slip through our precarious border controls again and again.

We have 18 isolation and quarantine facilities in Auckland with thousands of staff marching in each day to work and marching out each night to a city of 1.5 million. It’s just a matter of time before there’s another slip up and, no matter how competent our dear leaders have been in ordering a lockdown, we can’t trust them to keep Covid out.

Despite being lauded for her fine communication skills, somehow the Prime Minister forgot to tell the boffins that regular testing of all border and quarantine staff should have been happening.

Not until Newshub’s Michael Morrah informed the nation on Thursday night that just a third of those working the borders had been tested at all did we realise just how loose this goose had been flying.

There have also been question marks over our so-called gold standard contact tracing abilities. As recently as July 7, five days into his new job, the health minister told me he was yet to be convinced we had the gold standard the Director General of Health said we had, and there was particular concern about our surge capacity.

Overseas, Vietnam and Australia should serve as warnings that no country can keep Covid out.

The dream of a vaccine arriving soon is just that.

The World Health Organisation has changed its tune on the timing of a vaccine. It’s now telling countries they need to learn to live with Covid in their communities and for a long time yet. The world record in terms of vaccine development is four years for the mumps vaccine and most take about 10 years.

Dr Simon Thornley, a senior lecturer of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, puts it this way: “In New Zealand we’ve talked ourselves into a corner that we’re going to be able to do this. A long-term strategy that is predicated on a vaccine coming and seeing New Zealand isolated from the rest of the world is unrealistic and detrimental to the health of our population.”

What about the death toll?

Every option comes with a cost. But it seems the cost to lives was initially overstated by the Prime Minister. Death tolls of between 8,500 and 27,600 were predicted and used as justification for the harsh measures imposed.

The then Health Minister David Clark told me he didn’t even know where some of those modeled numbers had come from and was unsure of others the Prime Minister had stated publicly.

Whatever the case, they need revisiting.

I spoke to a Swedish journalist a few weeks back to get a sense of how our two, polar-opposite approaches are working and learned their death rate is far lower than had been predicted. And that’s without any lockdowns (although there are low-level restrictions, including a ban on gatherings of more than 50 people) and children still able to attend school.

Sweden's new cases stood at 244 (August 13) compared with 263 (July 31)*.  Neighbouring countries are enduring the rise of a second surge.

Moreover, the WHO says the death rate is now estimated at between 0.5 and 1 percent.

So the cost to life is not what it was but the burden on our businesses, workers and families is all too real.

The political problem

"Stay home, Save lives.

We will take a health first approach.

We will follow the health advice from officials.

We believe in science, not conspiracy.

We can beat this again.

We are the envy of the world in the way we’re handling Covid."

Ardern has made very clear how she will deal with Covid and it involves a lot of pain for kiwis. It’s an entrenched position and a change of course risks undermining her decision in the first instance.

But she must ask herself whether the health risks of perpetual lockdowns are worth the economic price.

Ardern’s ability to clearly communicate decisions has never been in doubt, but increasingly her ability to make them is.

We can’t insulate ourselves from Covid’s impact on the global economy, but can make sure we don’t exacerbate the problem by shooting our own in the foot.

* Correction: An earlier version of this column said Sweden's percentage change in new cases over the past fortnight has dropped by a third. This was incorrect. Our apologies. It was 244 new cases on August 13 against 263 new cases on July 31. The paragraph referring to the Productivity Commission estimate of cost of the extra five days of lockdown has been amended to point to Professor Shaun Hendy contesting the calculation and the value of the commission's work for future scenarios.

Ryan Bridge is the host of the Ryan Bridge Drive Show on Magic Talk radio

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