ANALYSIS: Monday afternoon’s 4pm post-Cabinet press conference will be the most significant alert level update of this lockdown.

Obviously all those in Auckland – and now in parts of Waikato – will be keenly listening to see if Monday signals the end of a lockdown that is now into its eighth week. But more than that, it now looks likely to herald a new way of managing Covid-19 that accepts some level of cases in the community without the need for hard lockdowns.

During her morning media round today, the prime minister has explicitly used the word ‘transition’ in relation to New Zealand’s Covid-19 management strategy.

Ardern said that whatever is announced, it isn’t likely to be a straight level 2 in Auckland.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will likely release a new plan for managing the way out of Covid on Monday afternoon.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will likely release a new plan for managing the way out of Covid on Monday afternoon.

“We’ve gone through restrictions that make life easier in Auckland, but don’t pose as much risk,” she said.

Moreover, this afternoon won’t just be about the immediate decision, but a roadmap for the next few months with a much higher level of general vaccination which in turn enables learning to live with the virus a safer proposition.

It comes as the Government – and Ardern in particular – has been hardening up language around vaccination rates. Rhetorically, it has moved from carrots of the extra freedoms we might all enjoy of the country hits, say 90 per cent of the population, to this stick that it will be hard to get new freedoms ‘unless ...’

It comes the day after Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins announced that only vaccinated non-citizens would be able to travel to New Zealand. That came the same day that Air New Zealand – the majority Government-owned national carrier – confirmed that it would only carry vaccinated people on international flights, and is considering doing the same for domestic flights.

The language is toughening as the Government desperately tries to drive the vaccination rate as high as it possibly can. By drawing a clear link between vaccination rates and personal liberty the Government is trying to speed up and max out the number of people getting jabs.

A lot of the issues here are around timing. When the Delta outbreak was first identified on August 17, by locking down immediately, the plan was to, in the prime minister’s words, ‘stamp out’ the latest outbreak. That would have given time to develop and phase in these new measures.

Instead, the lockdowns in Auckland have clearly constrained the outbreak and made it manageable, but at the cost of lengthy suspension of liberty, considerable economic stress and inconvenience.

If the Government was to continue with Auckland being locked down – assuming that public compliance remained high – it might yet be able to stamp it out. But the question is really around how long that would take. Equally, as is now looking more likely, if that simply is no longer feasible, it is best to get on and produce a roadmap for how opening up is going to be managed.

In blunt terms, if it isn’t going be stamped out and instead a suppression strategy (even if it is not called that) is being adopted with more targeted testing, contact tracing and isolation, it is better to do sooner rather than later.

The cases in Waikato, far from meaning a much longer level 3 in Auckland, actually show how the current alerts levels system needs to evolve.

The game is now most likely going to be to reduce restrictions as much as possible for as long as possible until a high level of the population is vaccinated. That could mean another month or two of pretty chafing restrictions for areas of Auckland at least. We will find out on Monday afternoon.

Managing the politics of that is going to be a whole new challenge for the Government. New Zealand has sat pretty for much of the past 18 months with no Covid here. That involved some hard choices, but none as hard as how to calibrate policy settings to manage some level of Covid-19 in New Zealand at a level the health system can cope with, while maintaining public confidence.