Aug 23, 2021 • 23M

Why elimination will have to end before most voters want it to

Humanitarian & business pressures on capacity-limited MIQ are extreme; Endless elimination means perma-lockdown, few MIQ spots & full flight suspensions; Only question on re-opening is when is safest

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Bernard Hickey
Bernard Hickey and friends explore the political economy together.
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TLDR & TLDL: The blowback via Twitter at least to my question yesterday about when and how to eliminate the elimination strategy was a little more intense than I expected. Understandably, Aotearoa-NZ is deeply invested in elimination as the way to beat both the health and economic effects of Covid-19, but when the facts change, so should our views.

The delta variant means stopping leakage from MIQ is impossible for any length of time. Photo: The Kaka

To summarise the push-back to yesterday’s column and podcast, and the tweet sent to promote it (102 replies and counting), critics wrote:

  • I was a nervous nelly sociopath and needed to shut up and be more patient;

  • that I was sentencing their under-12s to death before they even had a chance at vaccination;

  • that I was prioritising the economy and business interests over peoples’ health;

  • that elimination had worked before last year and early this year, and would again; and

  • that our economy had already coped with regular lockdowns and MIQ restrictions and would again.

Here’s a sample of the least sweary and abusive responses

The counter arguments to the blowback

But there were some who supported the column and had read my arguments and the nuances I put into the full column, which is often hard to put into a single tweet.

Here’s my push-back to the push-back

Just for clarity and to delete some of the bad faith criticisms I received, I’m not saying we should open up now.

I also want to vaccinate like the wind, to stay locked down, to mask up and socially isolate in general, and to keep the borders tight until we at least get to 90% vaccinated, especially for the vulnerable. Realistically, that won’t be until mid-2022.

That may well give us time for the latest research and to vaccinate younger children. But, before then, we have to start talking about what opening up means, because most likely permanent elimination is not possible, especially with delta.

Part of the reason why the permanent elimination idea has to be challenged is that, according to my reading of the Skegg report and the forum held after, permanent elimination is actually the Government’s ongoing policy, despite the framing of the Skegg report as a reopening. The PM’s view, when I pushed her last week on the issue of vaccinating young children, was that elimination was preferable.

Ashley Bloomfield made this point in the forum’s discussion session: “We can’t vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. The virus is too infectious, but it will help.” The implication is the Australian option of vaccinating back to openness is not possible. Elimination is the plan A and the plan B.

PM Jacinda Ardern again talked yesterday about elimination first, and then discussion about opening later, which is fair enough. But the underlying view is elimination has worked, will work, and is the best we have.

“We can only look at what's best for us and we know an elimination strategy has worked for New Zealand before. Now, elimination is the strategy absolutely, particularly while we vaccinate our people

“For now, the elimination strategy is the right thing for New Zealand, it means getting those cases back down to a point were we can remove our restrictions again.” Jacinda Ardern in yesterday’s post-cabinet news conference.

The PM is also relying on polling showing the median-voting part of the public are rock-solid behind the toughest lockdowns and hardest borders possible, and are certainly more conservative than Opposition politicians and some in business. A Sticky Beak poll for The Spinoff published today showed only one in four wanted the Trans-Tasman bubble reopened this year.

The deeper problems with ‘elimination-forever’

To reiterate and expand, the problem with the ‘elimination forever’ view is a lack of understanding about the intense pressures on MIQ, a lack of understanding about just how ‘game-changing’ delta is, and a lack of understanding about what elimination actually means for our daily personal, social and economic lives in the long run.

Here’s the key reasons why I think the Government will have to pivot early next year to changing the public’s mindset from ‘only elimination and forever’ to ‘ending elimination with the lowest risk to the vulnerable’:

  • delta means stopping a leakage from MIQ is impossible for any length of time, unless MIQ and the number of incoming flights is further reduced in size (it’s amazing it hasn’t happened before now);

  • delta means occasional full suspensions of international flights (proposed in recent days by the Otago epidemiologists), suspensions and closures of MIQ places (seen last night by MBIE and with the Crowne Plaza’s closure admitted this morning);

  • the already large social wellbeing and mental health pain of ongoing lockdowns, extreme social distancing, missed funerals, births and weddings must at some point be weighed against the risk and potential pain of hospitalisations and deaths of those unable to be vaccinated; and

  • businesses needing to directly deal with suppliers, buyers and investors have to have a pathway to rejoining the world physically and meaningfully.

I welcome the debate, your comments and further suggestions in the comments below.