Covid 19 coronavirus: Steven Joyce: This time, let’s try a little humility as we learn lockdown’s lesson


So here we find ourselves. We’ve joined much of the rest of the world in having to manage a Delta outbreak.

There were plenty of us expecting something like this to happen, but the suddenness of a Level 4lockdown is still jarring. One minute life is moving along broadly as normal, so long as it doesn’t involve the border, then whammo! Home we go to stare at the walls.

Yours truly was working on Tuesday in Hamilton, and when I heard about that first case I decided to use a spare 30minutes to get a haircut.

It didn’t take long. With me there is always more waiting time than cutting time. As I drove away, I chuckled at myself for being so paranoid about lockdowns …

The suddenness of this one will rightly be freaking many people out.

Even if it turns out to be a shorter one, and it hangs in the balance currently, the fear of being thrown back into enforced isolation at a moment’s notice again in spring or in the run-up to Christmas is real. How does any business or family plan for that?

I hope we don’t get too tough on whoever was the unlucky soul who was the vector for bringing Delta into the country this time.

The conceit is in thinking that we can come up with a completely 100per cent water-tight border. Short of letting no goods or people cross it at all, which would truly mean North Korea, there is always a risk. Fortification is effective but not failsafe. And so it proved.

Still, hopefully some good can come from this new reality. Perhaps we could collectively use the time to develop some greater clarity of thinking on our response to this pandemic, knowing what we know now.

We could start bydropping talk of “elimination” or elimination strategies”.

The word elimination has become Orwellian and unhelpful. Covid is not eliminated when we keep it out of the country. It is simply shut out and we have barricaded ourselves in.

And all the evidence suggests the world won’t be eliminating it, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Kicking the term elimination to touch is important because its use by our politicians has bred smugness and complacency, particularly in them. They have acted as if Covid has been eliminated, and signalled the same to the public with their actions.

The vaccine rollout has been accurately described as a strollout.

There has beenscandalous negligence in preparing our hospital facilities for another wave of the pandemic, as alluded to in the Skegg Report last week.

The Government has instead busied itself looking down its nose at the outbreaks in Australia, reorganising hospital administration (during a pandemic?), and paying for things like school lunches for kids whose parents don’t want them, or putting cameras on fishing boats, all out of the Covid emergency fund.

This is not the sort of stuff on the top of your to-do list when there is a war on.

And it is a war, with a tricky and persistent invader.

Fortifying our defences and using our moat to protect ourselves is a legitimate tactic and I support it.

Where we have fallen down is in not using the time those fortifications have given us to urgently vaccinate the population and prepare our hospital facilities to cope better with another outbreak.

When one occurs, there is no alternative to locking down.

Which brings us to the second thing we can take out of this lockdown. A new urgency for vaccination for everyone.

Vaccinations don’t prevent transmission, but they do suppress serious illness. It should by now be clear that vaccination is the only known way out of this pandemic. Frankly, it was apparent months ago, but at least with the clear and present danger we have now, the Government and all of us should have the impetus to rapidly get it done.

Temporarily halting vaccinations at the start of lockdown was not a good first step. You mean you hadn’t prepared vaccination centres for operating under Level 3 or 4?

At the same time, ministers should sort out their communications around vaccinations and the approach to lockdowns once the population is vaccinated.

It was surprising to hear them this week chorusing “yes we will still have lockdowns” post-vaccinations if there was another outbreak.

If they believe that, then what is the motivation for vaccinations? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

I suspect a butt-covering exercise.

If ministers start admitting that people won’t need to be locked down once we are all vaccinated, it’s a short step from there to blaming them for the current lockdown, given that they have been supervising the world’s slowest rollout.

Alternatively, they really believe our hospital system won’t cope with even a small increase in Covid-related hospitalisations next year alongside our regular flu season. I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes if that proved to be the case, having by then had two years to prepare.

Finally, we should all take some time to acquaint ourselves with what is happening now in Europe, and not the dated view portrayed by some.

• Andrew Barnes: What it’s like living with Delta in the UK

Europeans had a bad pandemic for a long time but friends and relatives now report that with the help of vaccinations, life is pretty much back to normal, at least for the time being.

They are even looking forward to the rollout of booster shots when required. We haven’t ordered any.

Europeans have been bemused by epidemiologists in the Antipodes describing their unlocking as a “barbaric experiment”, and suggest, politely, that we need to get out more.

We did well in the early stages of Covid but this outbreak should remove any remaining temptation to rest on our laurels. Hopefully it teaches some humility to our politicians and senior public servants and a much-needed reassessment of our plan forward from here.

We only need to lock down now because we are not vaccinated.

Our businesses, our kids missing their schooling and friends, our families missing life events, elderly neighbours prevented from talking to each other, those who feel life and its opportunities are passing them by, can’t put up with much more of “lockdown is the only solution”.

Steven Joyce is a former National Party MP and Minister of Finance

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