Heather du Plessis-Allan: Kiwis won’t stand for another year in a NZ-only bubble

OPINION:

The Government may have a Covid challenge on its hands. If the transtasman bubble scramble is anything to go by, public sentiment might be shifting faster than they seem prepared for.

For most of last year, fear of Covid meant most Kiwis supported full border closures. Polls regularly reported more than 75 per cent support.

But this year, there’s a sense the mood is shifting. Support for this month’s Auckland lockdown seemed to fall away, along with compliance. There are stories of Auckland bars filling up straight after the PM’s Saturday night lockdown announcement as people flocked into town for one last party. TV news captured images of America’s Cup-goers breaking the level 2 rules. The PM was forced to resort to reminding relaxing Kiwis that “Covid kills people”.

Maybe people are less afraid because of the number of Covid cases who went on holidays and to the gym and yet managed to infect absolutely no one else with the highly contagious UK variant. Maybe it’s just fatigue: we held on through to the end of last year but we’re not that keen on going another 12 months doing the same.

And so, maybe that explains why the Government’s scrambled to progress the transtasman bubble: because maybe public sentiment is shifting in support of that.

This is probably less about Kiwi concern for the local tourism market and more about a hankering to see family in Australia. There are 600,000 members of our families living over there. In our own extended family, a grandad’s missed out on a third of the little ones’ lives, a mum wants to support her daughter’s first birth and there are kids and cousins we haven’t seen in a long time. That will be the story for families up and down New Zealand.

It’s surprising that the Government allowed the bubble narrative to get away on them so easily. Through their consistent public polling, they are usually super-connected to what Kiwis feel, so should’ve picked up a shift in sentiment.

And thus, they should’ve been able to lead rather than being led. Instead, this has been forced on them through only one week’s worth of public pressure.

It started on Wednesday last week with National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop asking a question in the House, getting Minister Chris Hipkins to admit talks with Australia had broken down. That day Australian PM Scott Morrison suggested the problem was that the Government wasn’t actually keen and then everyone piled in: the media, the airports, the tourism sector and Australasian business leaders.

By Wednesday this week, we’d already heard privately that a date was set and it was likely mid-April.

This is a massive concession from the Government. Up to now, the intent seemed to be to publicly pretend a bubble was imminent but privately hold off until possibly early next year. Just a fortnight ago, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash reportedly told West Coast businesses there would be no bubble before we’d reached herd immunity. That’s consistent with what tourism insiders told me he’d confided weeks earlier. It’s also consistent with whispers about the PM’s preference for herd immunity first. Never mind the constant public assurances that a bubble was always just three months away. It became obvious New Zealand was being strung along.

There’s good reason – politically at least – for the Government to drag the chain on opening travel to Australia. They’ve enjoyed the inaccurate perception that Australia is a Covid cot-case in contrast to us, so they’ll wear it if a case makes it across the Tasman.

But the GDP figure out this week suggests New Zealanders’ lived reality should take priority over Labour’s politics. A 1 per cent drop across three months is worse than expected, the resulting 2.9 per cent drop across last year is worse than we’ve ever seen. That is the impact of keeping out international tourists.

Numbers like this, missing your family, businesses closing, an unnecessary lockdown, build grumpiness. All of that stuff could be moving the dial on what the public wants and therefore how fast the Government needs to move to keep up with us.

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