OPINION: One more week.
One more week of cooking every meal, of seeing the same couple of blocks on your daily walk, of seeing just the people you live with.
The Government decided on Monday that despite single-digit new case numbers and no evidence of undetected widespread transmission of coronavirus, New Zealand needs an extra five days of full-lockdown to lock in the gains made in the last month.
Instead of leaving lockdown this Wednesday we will do it after the Anzac weekend at 11.59pm on Monday April 27.
Then there will be two weeks of level 3, itself nowhere near a return to normal life. Nobody will be throwing parties or heading to the bar, but many will be heading in to work for the first time in weeks, or dropping their kids off at school again.
Restrictions on recreation, travel, and social life will be loosened, but remain strict: you can surf but not jetski, travel home but not to your holiday home, and add a small exclusive bubble to your own – not a Tinder date, probably. It’s lockdown-light, lockdown with a bit more trust for you to be sensible.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would have been conscious that many see level 3 as basically level 4 with takeout, so would not have been pleased with another whole month of it. Two weeks gives the Government one more transmission cycle of the disease to make sure it has locked in the gains achieved during lockdown.
Those gains are obvious. The transmission rate of the virus in New Zealand is now estimated to be just 0.48 – roughly meaning only every second person who catches it passes it on to someone else. Keep it there and the virus essentially dies out by itself. Of the more than 700 cases in New Zealand diagnosed this month, only eight are a real mystery to the Government, with a transmission pathway not yet explained.
But while lockdown is clearly working, it’s not yet clear that the health system is ready for the pressure that could come from moving out of it. Contact tracing – essentially tracking every single person an infected case may have infected, and then isolating them – appears to be a part of the problem.
An independent audit completed 10 days ago but released on Monday was fairly damning. New Zealand’s contact tracing capacity was exceeded at points in March, even when there were less than 100 new cases a day. And it wasn’t yet clear if the new nationalised hub for this work would be up for it.
This report is now likely out of date, with the Government ploughing $55 million into upgrading the national hub and director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield promising we will have “gold-standard” contact tracing by the end of this week.
There are good grounds to critique the Government for only getting this work done now, but like with the nationalisation of personal protective equipment, it was moving from a standing start.
New Zealand’s highly decentralised healthcare system is simply not well placed for nationalised epidemics of this nature, and as David Skegg told the Epidemic Response Select Committee recently, it’s those long-maligned bureaucrats in Wellington who need the funding and support to get it ready for the next one.
This extension was couched in business terms by Ardern, because she knows it will be businesses who are the most angry with an extension – polling suggests the general public support big restrictions.
Ardern noted it was just two extra business days of lockdown compared to leaving on Wednesday. And if you are going back to work next week – as sectors like construction and manufacturing will be – you can go in to get the workplace set up this week.
This short extension is probably the right call. Pure health experts might recommend a longer lockdown in an ideal world, but they are advisers, not leaders. Your social licence starts to bleed away the longer you keep people on house arrest.
It is right for the Government to consider the damage to the economy when the risk starts to get lower, as NZ First have clearly been pushing for within Cabinet. The economy should not be a sacred cow, and can be reconfigured in time so that the damage from crises like these don’t hit the working poor the hardest, but that’s not going to happen overnight.
For now there are tens of thousands of Kiwis who don’t have jobs they can do with laptops, but who still deserve the security of employment.
At the same time, those who cry over-reaction and want the lockdown to be shortened need only to look to the city at the centre of the world’s economy for evidence of this disease’s power.
Nearly 14,000 people have now died from this virus in New York. No government would find it tenable to keep the entire economy open with that kind of death toll, with good reason.