TLDR & TLDL: Aotearoa-NZ now faces an awful decision, similar to the one our leaders collectively had to make in the third week of March last year.
Should we forge ahead and reopen before Christmas, but leave behind the ‘stragglers’ who are unvaccinated to get infected, and potentially overwhelm the hospital system?
Or should we wait and work for many, many more weeks into the summer to get 90% of all the motu vaccinated, in the hope it can avoid the long-term social, economic and health grief from widespread outbreaks among the unvaccinated, especially young Māori who are the least vaccinated and highly vulnerable to long Covid?
The Government has to make the decision within the next week or two and it will define what happens politically and economically in the months and years to come. It will also define the Government’s character and reflect the values of its leaders. See more below on the scale of the decision and which way it seems likely to go.
Elsewhere in the news this morning, the Ministry of Health’s saliva testing contract debacle took another painful twist, Ashley Bloomfield may have accidentally committed the Government to many more weeks of lockdowns, and, China has tested a potent new nuclear missile that would fly over us and via the South Pole to attack the United States.
Coming up later today, I’ll be covering the post-cabinet presser at the Beehive at 4pm. We’re expecting a decision to extend level three restrictions in Auckland and the Waikato, but Northland may be allowed to drop to level two.
Wait for the stragglers? Or open up and hope our hospitals can cope?
As I’ve referred to above, the Government faces a term-defining decison in the next week or two, similar to the ‘go hard and go early’ one made on March 23 last year.
Does it lower Auckland’s restrictions and signal an opening up for Christmas and the summer once Auckland’s overall first-dose rate ticks over 90% later this week? Or does it hold on to lift young Māori vaccination rates in Auckland, Northland, the Bay of Plenty and East Coast above 90%.
Many who are already double-dosed and not from those most vulnerable communities are already calling for an opening up in early December, arguing that will give enough time for the ‘stragglers’, the most hesitant and the outright anti-vaxxers to make up their minds and get the shot. Why should the rest of the country be held hostage by ‘the losers, laggards and loonies,’ they ask.
Here’s a sample of that view from ACT Leader David Seymour, who seems to be better at bottling the lightening or ‘mood’ of the floating and centre-right ‘mainstream’ voters than National Leader Judith Collins at the moment (bolding mine):
“ACT believes in personal responsibility. At some point we have to stop waiting for the stragglers, procrastinators, and crazies who believe anything they read online. Once everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated, it’s time to get on with life.” David Seymour in an ACT statement last night.
Those ‘stragglers’ are overwhelmingly Māori, especially in the epicentre of the endemic delta outbreak, where 79% of those infected since mid-August were either Māori or Pacific residents. The Ministry of Health tables reproduced below show less than 50% of Māori are currently fully vaccinated in Tamaki Makaurau. They also show (second and third chart and table respectively) that young Māori in Auckland, Northland and Bay of Plenty-East Coast are vaccinated at half the rates of non-Māori and non-Pacific youth. (Interestingly, the Pacific youth vaccination rates are slightly better than for young Māori).
Auckland will be 90% average first-dosed later this week
The decision is near because Auckland’s overall population will be 90% first-dosed by the end of this week, which has already sparked calls from the likes of ACT for a December 1 ‘freedom day’ where Auckland opens up.
Until now, the Government has been coy about which particular version of the 90% threshold it is using for that opening up decision.
However, Ministry of Health Director General Ashley Bloomfield appeared to shift the debate somewhat on Saturday when visiting the overwhelmingly Māori and Pacific community at Cannons Creek’s Super Saturday event.
He said he wanted “all groups” more than 90% vaccinated. If he is referring to the double vaccination of Māori in Auckland, then that means another 55,818 people or 41.7% of the Māori population there need to vaccinated. If he is referring to the single-dose rate, then another 26,125 shots are needed. That equates to a vaccination rate of 14 ‘Super Saturday’-like days of 1,888 first doses per day.
“We don’t want a 90 per cent average uptake of the vaccine – we want it to be 90 per cent across all groups.” Ashley Bloomfield at Cannons Creek on Saturday, as quoted by Stuff.
The decision Cabinet makes in the coming weeks will say a lot about its priorities and its values. The Government decided in March this year not to take the advice of Māori health experts to prioritise Māori and Māori community and health groups in the vaccination plan. It saw the ‘optics’ of favouring Māori as too difficult with median voters, especially outside Auckland. Instead, the Government prioritised by age group and medical condition.
My view: The irony is that decision may be the reason why the reopening may have to be delayed for yet more many weeks, effectively turning a political decision about optics seven months ago into a bad decision on both health and economic grounds now.
Or the Government could simply repeat the March, 2021 decision by forging ahead with a reopening before Māori are 90% vaccinated, especially in Auckland, the most remote communities of Northland and the East Coast, betting that it will be politically more acceptable and may not overwhelm the hospitals.
It could be argued the decision to drop Auckland from level four to level three on September 21 was a precursor of that decision, and therefore a leading indicator. Māori health experts and community groups have repeatedly called since then for a reversal of that decision, which has clearly led to an increase in the number of cases in the last two weeks.
Health of all = Economy? Or Health of all vs Economy?
One framing of the decision is that the Government made the right call in late March last year to prioritise the long term health of the people over the immediate economic impact of lockdowns, and was surprisingly rewarded when the strict lockdowns were mercifully short and led to the biggest economic rebound in the developed world. Essentially, the decision to equate health with the economy, rather than seeing the decision as health vs the economy, was the right one then.
However, this time around, the lockdowns have dragged on and the Government is concerned it is losing its ‘social license’ for the sort of lockdowns New Zealand has, which are the strictest in the world. However, few are saying extended lockdowns are economically disastrous in the same way many feared in March last year, and which forced most other developed world Governments to wait or prevaricate over hard lockdowns.
For example, the Reserve Bank has just hiked interest rates (mistakenly in my view) and everyone else sees another couple of hikes over the next six months because consumer spending and business confidence is robust.
However, the political and social pain is more of an issue this time around than economic pain. Back in March 2021, we had not experienced long lockdowns and there was no prospect of opening up and tolerating a spread of Covid in the community. Back then there were no vaccines and we had no understanding of what closed borders for two years and the prospect of four months of lockdowns in our largest city were like.
Aucklanders and much of the rest of the country are exhausted, and just want the lockdowns to end. ‘Freedom Day’ feels so close for those who are double-dosed that there’s a type of white-line fever in the air. Many feel it would be safe to open up, even if there is nervousness about how the hospital system would cope. Many voters ‘feel’ it’s a sensible and hopeful decision to open up. PM Jacinda Ardern has encouraged that by talking of a real chance of a ‘Kiwi Christmas’ and a ‘normal’ summer music festival season, albeit with vaccine certificates.
But the clock is ticking. The festival organisers are close to their ‘drop dead’ dates for decisions about whether to go ahead. Many of the pre-Christmas ones have already gone. Family Christmas plans all over the country are on tenterhooks. Bach and flight bookings are poised to be either cancelled, or locked in. The decision about moving down Auckland and the Waikato down to level two will need to be taken within the next fortnight to make a ‘normal’ summer a realistic prospect.
So, if the Government chose again to prioritise health over economic and immediate political drivers by waiting for young Māori to reach 90%, how long would it take before the economy and society could open up again?
14 more Super Saturdays needed
The national first dose vaccination rate rose one percentage point to 85% over the weekend of vaxathon action, while the fully vaccinated rate rose by slightly more to 65%. The first dose rate in Auckland hit 89% yesterday and the Ministry of Health said another 20,360 first doses were needed to get over the 90% overall threshold. It saw that happening some time this week.
There’s been a lot of doubt about exactly which rate is the threshold for Auckland to start reducing restrictions and the country starting to open up. PM Jacinda Ardern has often cited 90%, but has been coy on whether that was national first dose, totally vaccinated, Māori overall, young Māori, or Auckland young Māori.
Currently, the national Māori first dose rate is 66%, while the second dose rate is 44%. The overall Māori first dose rate in Auckland of 71% is 18 percentage points below the rest of the population in Auckland. The second dose rate for Māori in Auckland is 49% vs 71% for the total population in Auckland.
There were 1,888 first doses given to Māori in Auckland on Saturday, which is 1.4% of the Māori population there. There would need to be 14 more ‘Super Saturdays’ worth of vaccination rates for the overall Māori population to get to 90% of the 133,857 over-12s population of in Auckland. It could take twice as long to get young Māori vaccination rates above 90%.
So which way will the Govt go?
The two most recent big decisions — to not prioritise Maori in March and to drop from level four to level three on September 21 — suggest the Government is tired of the lockdowns too and can see the political dangers of keeping everyone in Auckland and Waikato locked down through Christmas, let alone significantly restricted through the rest of the North Island and especially the South Island.
“One of the things I think we all need to recognise around alert levels is, alert levels work when there is a really high degree of voluntary compliance. We were already seeing at the end of that level 4 period that more and more people were not sticking with that. We're seeing that increasingly the tolerance for those levels of restrictions has really waned." " Chris Hipkins on Newshub’s The Nation.
It may also feel the hospital system can cope, although that remains actively under debate inside the DHBs.
The politically expedient thing to do right now would be to signal an opening up before Christmas and make a song and dance about frantically vaccinated as many of the vulnerable as possible as fast as possible. My bet is on this option being taken.
The way I think it should go
But it should hold on until young Māori are 90% double-dosed, if it was to display the same values it showed in late March last year. The difference is that back then some of the most prominent figures in the business community, and in the Opposition, were also in favour of a hard lockdown that prioritised health over the economy. Essentially, the Government had air cover.
This time it doesn’t. The Opposition is firmly baying for a reopening and the usual fault lines in our society along racial and socio-economic lines are opening up. The business community is also desperate for a reopening of the internal and external borders. It has been less blatant with its public rhetoric, but it is just as insistent behind closed Zoom meetings.
That brief period of solidarity from March 2020 has dissolved under the pressures of our fundamental inequalities and history of choosing the interests of the median-voting Pakeha majority over Māori. It appears we’re about to do the same again in the most awful way that will see tens of thousands of Māori youth suffer long Covid.
News and scoops breaking this morning
Couldn’t give a spit - Saliva testing delivered by Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) was well short of the 3,000 to 20,000 a week expected by the Ministry of Health under a $60m contract, Dileepa Fonseka reported in Stuff this morning.
The saliva testing roll-out has been the source of much public embarrassment for the Ministry of Health after its roll-out fell behind schedule. An immediate roll-out of saliva testing was recommended by the Simpson Roche report in September last year.
A saliva testing contract for border workers was tendered in March, enacted in May, but only rolled out to border workers days before the Delta outbreak in August.
Much of the public tension has revolved around a dispute with saliva testing provider Rako Science, whose diagnostically validated test was passed over for another test which was not similarly validated at the time. (Stuff)
News in our political economy here and overseas over the weekend
Vaxathon conga line - Just over 130,000 doses were given in Aotearoa-NZ on Saturday, well over the 100,000 doses PM Jacinda Ardern hoped for. That included a record-high 10,825 first doses to Māori, lifting this group’s overall first-dose rate to 66% of the eligible population and the second-dose rate to 44%. The Māori second dose rate rose to 49% in Auckland and remains well short of the 90% rate epidemiologists want.
MIQ loosening coming - Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins indicated over the weekend that shorter MIQ stays and a greater potential for double-vaxxed returning residents to self isolate were likely sooner than previously expected.
"I think you'll see some changes there in the coming weeks. There is a Cabinet process to go through where we make those decisions and I don't want to get ahead of those, but we are absolutely looking at our border settings now in the light of the fact we've got more cases in the community." Chris Hipkins.
A Sputnik moment? China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide missile in August that circled the globe, catching US intelligence by surprise, the FT reported on Saturday. The missile flies at five times the speed of sound at a low trajectory and is manoeuvrable, making it harder to detect and destroy. It could also fly over the South Pole to attack the US, confusing North Pole-focused defences. Russia and the US have not developed such missiles yet. (NDTV)
A lump of coal - A single Democratic Senator forced US President Joe Biden to start revising a US$3.5t infrastructure spending plan because he opposed the core of Biden’s climate emissions reductions plans around shutting coal and gas plants. West Virginia (Pop’n 1.8m) senator Joe Manchin was reported by the New York Times late on Friday to have blocked the package. The state has 13,000 coal miners (2% of the state’s workforce). (Reuters)
Thread of the day
Charts and video of the day
These charts in a presentation by micromobility expert Horace Dediu illustrate the potential for e-bikes, scooters and buggies to solve our transport emissions problem.
‘The overwhelming number of trips are short, but we prepare our vehicles for the rare worst-case trip. (The 300-mile one-way-trip, family and suitcases jammed into our car.)’ Horace Dediu
The cost of micromobility is dropping fast. Dediu compares the trajectories of micromobility devices vs electric cars, with the trajectories of PCs and mobile devices.
“When mobile devices arrived at a lower price point, they dramatically increased the size of the market. (Compare the yellow dotted line to the grey dotted line of PCs below.) His argument is that micromobility, the array of smaller e-bikes, scooters and yet-to-be-invented buggies, will similarly expand the market.” Horace Dediu
Here’s his presentation in full.
Comment of the day in The Kākā community
“In the past couple of weeks, I have discovered that a number of my young whanau’s friends are not getting vaccinated. They had obviously influenced my younger family members until I convinced them to get the jab. I’ve also discovered to my surprise that one of my educated middle aged friends is the same. I think the common thread is mistrust in a government who tells us to trust them and do what they say while saying one thing and doing another themselves. In the past, the PM used her public speaking skills to bring everyone together. But people now understand that her entire leadership is basically just words and the are often lies. Peter, Bernard is right when he says that housing is everything. NZ used to pride itself in being an egalitarian society and we elected a PM who promised to save that, but she didn’t. And now we don’t know who we are.” Erina here in the week’s end summary.
A fun thing
Ka kite ano