Jacinda Ardern has a lot on her mind as she prepares to sketch the public a course out of the Covid pandemic. She talks to Henry Cooke about why there won’t be a clear milestone when New Zealand has vaccinated enough people, why 2021 is harder than 2020, and her commitment to climate change policy.
There’s not going to be a magic number.
Jacinda Ardern is happy to crow about hitting two million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine as she sits down for a long interview with Stuff on Wednesday evening, but she’s also clear that she won’t be able to point to some milestone like Scott Morrison is in Australia, some percentage of the population vaccinated or number of doses in arms and say: That’s it, no more lockdowns, open the borders.
“Just a number oversimplifies things. And I don’t expect that is going to change,” Ardern says.
2021 is a ‘grind’
Sipping a gumboot tea as the evening light starts to fade, two days after the first bad-ish poll for Labour in over a year, Ardern admits 2021 is turning into a bit of a grind.
“This is a hard year. I pick up and often feel the same thing that our voters feel. You get a sense that there’s a grind to things at the moment for people,” Ardern says.
“That’s the beauty of being a politician in a small country, you don’t have to go far to be able to get a sense of things without having to rely on a poll.”
She puts this down to both a grim global outlook and the impact her Government’s border restrictions are having on everyday life.
“It’s totally natural as humans that you look for light at the end of the tunnel – but we’re in the middle of a pandemic where even when you get the light of a vaccine you still see a massive toll in countries that you think have done a pretty good job.”
“Looking over to Australia, rather than feeling lucky that you’re not in that position, it’s the same feeling as living on a street where your house is fine but your neighbour’s is on fire. The reality is that this thing isn’t going away, and it’s hard. It’s hard for businesses who need people, and it’s hard for people who want to see their family and friends.”
But despite her trademark empathy, the prime minister does not appear to be preparing a nice clean path out of the pandemic to present at her big speech about the second half of the “year of the vaccine” next Thursday.
There will be no aforementioned magic number, she says. Because Covid-19 is changing too much for that kind of certainty.
“If everything were stable and you had certainty about the way Covid-19 was going to behave – then there is a certain level of decisions that you might be able to make. But Covid isn’t stable or certain and I think that we are still in a bit of an experimental stage globally, where variants that could demonstrate vaccine resistance could emerge.”
This caution about the changeable notion of Covid-19 also makes Ardern unwilling to seriously consider allowing it to run loose in the community once a high proportion are vaccinated, as Boris Johnson is in the UK.
At the same time, she doesn’t think it’s a simple choice between opening fully up and standing still with the current heavy restrictions in place.
“So what is the path that we can choose that factors in a changeable virus but still keeps making progress for us – because I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.
“When we are vaccinated we can still keep all the positives while removing some of the negatives. That’s the path I’m looking for.”
Vaccination more about ending lockdowns than opening borders
Ardern keeps telling the country high vaccination rates create “options” – without spelling out what those options are.
She told Stuff a large part of it was just the option of saying goodbye to lockdowns, before border controls are considered.
“When you have an unvaccinated population, it limits your options – it means you have to use extraordinary tools like lockdowns in order to protect people,” Ardern says.
“I ask people: If you had a choice what would you want to get rid of first, the uncertainty of a really heavy level 3 or level 4 lockdown, versus a bit less friction at the border?”
“People want to get rid of the idea that at any moment in time a big life event might end up being cancelled because you’re going into a lockdown. That hangs over people. I just think about the psychological impact it’s hard on Victoria, for instance.”
She’s also eager to point out that the free and normal life Kiwis are living right now is the source of our economic good fortune, and that even countries that are loosening up border controls like Canada still have serious rules restricting social gatherings.
“The benefit is there has been an economy that has broadly recovered to pre-Covid levels, and that is astounding relative to what we’ve seen in other places, and relative to what was predicted I mean, unemployment at four per cent – I celebrated that in a non-Covid period, let alone a Covid period.”
On the border she’s happy to admit that she’s asked her officials for advice on things like vaccinated people isolating at home or going through a shorter stay in managed isolation, but won’t get into her actual thoughts on such measures yet.
“These are the things that we are trying to think about nice and early, even though obviously while we’re unvaccinated that’s not something we would do. These are the kinds of questions that we are asking.”
Ardern: We aren’t backing down on climate, more to come on housing, trade
The Government has been in rapprochement mode with some of its harshest critics over the week: Opening the border to more seasonal workers, and signalling the likely-demise of the hated Auckland cycle bridge.
But despite the Groundswell protests, Ardern says the Government isn’t about to back down on the climate or freshwater policies angering the agricultural sector.
“There’s always things that we could do to make implementation easier. I’m not going to shy away from the things I said I would do though: I’m committed to our climate work, I’m committed to our freshwater work, but I will always listen to how we can do things in a way that eases some of that change.”
What’s yet to be seen is how her Government would handle the inevitable protest that would happen should agricultural emissions lose their exemption into the Emissions Trading Scheme next year.
On other sore spots like housing, mental health, and immigration, Ardern won’t concede any ground to critiques.
She says the full impact of her Government’s housing package from March is yet to be fully rolled out into the economy, but hints that there could be more on the supply side, as the big changes to planning rules won’t be in place until 2024.
“We’re exploring what we can do around accelerating housing development from a planning perspective – so we aren’t quite finished in that area.”
But that’s not all the rest of the year has in store: If possible, Ardern wants to get the trade deals with Europe and the UK finished, whether that’s from New Zealand or by travelling over there.
“I have a role to play in helping complete it. I will play it.”
Even with Covid shutting the borders and farmers protesting it seems one thing does remain certain: New Zealand will have a lot of milk to sell.