Claire Trevett: Delta outbreak leaves PM relying on fear instead of vaccines for lockdown success


Perversely, New Zealand’s low vaccination rate is both an indictment and a blessing in disguise if the lockdown is to succeed.

Throughout the year, the Prime Minister has defended New Zealand not getting its vaccines earlier because we did not have Covid-19 and other countries needed them more.

The latter was accurate, but it was always going to a problem when the first bit of that changed and we did have Covid-19.

Now we have it and, like New South Wales, we are a naked little baby in a blizzard.

With its usual sense of mischief, the Delta variant came along just days after the PM set out the roadmap to a lockdown-free life of quarantine-free travel.

It was intended to come at a time when enough of us wore the “individual armour” of a vaccine.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resisted setting a specific threshold of a vaccination rate, but it is safe to say that at a smidgen over 30 per cent, we are nowhere near it anyway.

It has also been made clear that even at 70 or 80 per cent, we could be put into lockdown given the damage Delta has caused in other countries with those levels of vaccination.

The reason our current low rate may be the saving grace in ensuring the lockdown works is that it will make people more inclined to abide by the rules of the lockdowns.

In the absence of the vaccine, fear becomes the individual armour in a lockdown.

Were we at a 50 or 60 per cent vaccination rate, the rates of complacency would also be higher.

People would be more likely to be lax, if not downright contrary, about lockdown rules,believing themselves to be protected.

Let me say here that in general, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and by and large when it comes to the Covid-19 response, we have eaten pretty damn well.

Ardern is at her best when she is dealing with an outbreak.

I do not believe the high regard for Ardern’s handling of Covid-19 is undeserved, or due simply to her communication skills and a nice turn of phrase.

Ardern is exceptionally good at making decisions, knowing what to take into account when she is making those decisions, making sure she gets that information, and then communicating it.

All of these are equally important, and have saved us more than once.

In the early stages of the lockdown, people are trusting her to get us through the outbreak rather than blaming her for getting us into it in the first place.

Where the question marks lie are not around whether we should be in lockdown, but what has happened in between lockdowns – or rather, what has not happened.

There are a few pieces of eggshell in the pudding that cannot be ignored.

Ardern has repeatedly warned Delta could make it to New Zealand, despite best efforts.

Yet despite warnings that it was almost inevitable, the response seems to have been caught on the hop.

It has been agile enough since the lockdown began. However, there seems to have been something of an assumption until then that the vaccine rollout would beat the return of Covid-19, so planning for the basics of locking down an unvaccinated population was neglected.

For businesses other than supermarkets, it remains unclear which ones can and cannot operate at various levels.

In testing procedures, there still does not seem to be an efficient system for prioritising those who are most at risk. This has been a problem in every single lockdown.

Those at most risk are left to queue for hours alongside everyone else. There are still big question marks about the ability of the health system to cope – even 15 months later.

Then there are the lockdown equivalents of the border workers: the frontline supermarket workers and Police.

It beggars belief they were not vaccinated early, in preparation for another lockdown.

We now have a situation where unvaccinated police officers have to go out and deal with unmasked anti-vaxxers.

It is only this week that the Government moved to use the freed-up capacity in the vaccinations system to move on those groups with any urgency.

Other countries are also now giving booster shots to vaccinated people after findings that Pfizer’s effectiveness against Delta starts to wane after five or six months.

That deadline is coming up for our border and MIQ workers. They will remain the most likely entry point of the virus, yet the Government is yet to set out any plans for boosters.

The lack of planning for a repeat lockdown was also highlighted by National’s Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop.

It is a bracing time to be an Opposition MP.

All Opposition leaders have known that feeling of irrelevancy. But only those who have been leader during a Covid-19 outbreak will know just how deep that dismal swamp can really be.

In the early days of a lockdown, people are too busy worrying and working out how to live in lockdown to pay attention to the Statler and Waldorf on the sidelines.

As with the media, attempts by Opposition MPs to question failings risk a fierce public backlash.

That matters more for the politicians than the media, because they are elected by the public. But it is also important.

Much of the challenging this time round has been done by Act leader David Seymour.

National’s leader Judith Collins has clearly developed a severe case of Simon-anoia and is terrified of suffering the same fate as former leader Simon Bridges. Beyond an expression of support for the lockdown, and urging people to get vaccinated, Collins has been fairly quiet.

She has primarily left it to Bishop to pick at the holes in the Government response.

Bridges was undone by the last level 4 lockdown for Covid-19, which sent National’s support crashing from higher than Labour to being down 20 points in the polls.

Bridges writes about that time in his book, National Identity, and the public backlash to a Facebook post that triggered the beginning of his end.

Covid-19 clearly is not done with him yet.

That book was due to be released at a big launch event in Auckland last Wednesday.

The day before that, along came Delta and lockdown.

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