Matthew Hooton: Jacinda Ardern’s Omicron choice horrific but necessary


Jacinda Ardern’s difficult decision to move to something like “let it rip” or at least “live with it” will probably cost the lives of a few hundred unvaccinated New Zealanders, plus a handful of others. Yet the Prime Minister had no real choice. She made the right call.

Wellington missed the window to close the border completely and wait until Pfizer’s Omicron vaccine becomes available in a few months. Whether that was decided consciously or because Ardern was on holiday no longer matters. If Omicron is not already established in the community, it soon will be.

Tuesday’s late-evening tweet from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) cancelling yesterday’s MIQ lottery was initially mistaken as the immediate border closure that experts like professors Michael Baker and Peter Davis have been calling for. It quickly turned out to involve only MIQ bookings for March and April.

That might explain the Beehive thinking a tweet from officials was enough, rather than a ministerial announcement from the podium of truth. But it means thousands of New Zealand citizens will continue arriving home over the next six weeks, plus DJs and other foreigners lucky enough to receive an essential skills work visa from MBIE and win the MIQ lottery.

Many hundreds will be Omicron-positive and able to pass it on, even if triple-vaccinated and asymptomatic themselves.

Yesterday morning, Herald political editor Claire Trevett gave readers a heads-up on likely changes to the Government’s Omicron plan, which Ardern largely confirmed later in the day.

The decision to keep the whole country in the orange traffic light for now and consider tougher rules for red might help flatten the hospitalisation curve, but information leaking out from officialdom remains bleak.

Politik reports that a paper circulating within the Auckland District Health Board (DHB) warns there could be 50,000 new Omicron cases a day, with the outbreak lasting until May. Around 20 per cent of its staff could test positive and be unavailable for work.

Worse, secret government documents leaked to Māori TV reveal just 108 ICU beds are available for Omicron across all DHBs. That’s much lower than the number the Government uses publicly and suggests capacity will, at best, be tight.

For context, in South Australia, the Australian state with rules most similar to ours, 23 people were in ICU yesterday from its population of 1.8 million. Our equivalent would be 65. If the New South Wales experience plays out here, our ICU system will certainly be overwhelmed. Intensivists will need to prioritise the young and fit over elderly people with other illnesses.

The documents obtained by Māori TV also warn that New Zealand, like Australia, could be harder hit by Omicron than the US and Europe since so few of us have been exposed to previous strains. “Most will not have any protective immunity benefits that may arise from prior infection,” the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet paper advises.

This is the cost of the earlier elimination and suppression strategies, although clearly one worth paying given Omicron appears to be less lethal to individuals who catch it than earlier variants. It also makes sense to get Omicron’s “protective immunity benefits” in summer rather than winter, when respiratory syncytial virus and influenza already stretch hospitals.

Nevertheless, Omicron’s higher transmissibility makes it more dangerous to the population as a whole than Delta or the original Covid. That means the risk of an unvaccinated person dying from Covid is now higher than in March 2020 or August 2021 when Ardern locked us all down.

Australia’s vaccination and booster rates are even better than ours, yet more than twice as many Australians are now dying of Covid each day than in the 2020 and 2021 outbreaks.

Hopefully this will only be temporary, but Ardern must expect something similar in New Zealand within weeks.

Whatever drove Ardern’s decision, neither the public nor the Government has any choice but to move on from the previous approaches, where eliminating or suppressing spread trumped all other considerations.

Children’s education and life chances, along with everyone’s mental health and financial security, certainly depend on hospitals not being overwhelmed — but also on schools, tertiary institutions and the rest of civil society being open through 2022.

The Government also knows its current border arrangements almost certainly breach the Bill of Rights Act and the Immigration Act, which guarantees that “every New Zealand citizen has, by virtue of his or her citizenship, the right to enter and be in New Zealand at any time”.

The Government also needs space to concentrate on delivering its so-far unfulfilled promises around health, housing, poverty and climate change before seeking a third term. Neither the Reserve Bank nor Finance Minister Grant Robertson wants to go back to printing money and handing it out in wage subsidies, not least because of the effects on house prices and grocery bills. Covid has already been a wonderful economic boon to those holding real assets and debt, and a curse to ordinary wage earners saving for a first home.

Ardern was elected to deliver the opposite.

The next few months will be horrific. Hopefully our experience is more like South Australia and less like New South Wales, but we will all have friends who become temporarily bedridden and know of someone who dies.

The silver lining is the international data suggesting Omicron sweeps through populations fairly quickly. By winter, most of us will have immunity not just from vaccination and boosters but also from being exposed to Covid, hopefully without any symptoms or at least without getting too sick.

From when we first heard about Covid in 2019, all this was probably inevitable. The Prime Minister’s key decisions over two years, the brilliance of vaccine scientists around the world and our 2000-kilometre moat mean New Zealanders at home have suffered much less than in many other parts of the world.

As a result, we are well positioned for the final stage, where we will have to mourn more people succumbing to Omicron, but where Covid becomes endemic in New Zealand, our borders re-open, fellow citizens return, life returns to something like the pre-Covid normal, and the psychological, educational and economic impacts of closed borders and lockdowns are behind us.

The Prime Minister was right: there is now no alternative but for each of us to take responsibility for ourselves, family, whānau, friends and wider communities.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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