Why Jacinda Ardern giving up on eliminating COVID-19 is a political gamble for the popular PM – ABC News

Posted: October 7, 2021 at 4:17 pm

For 18 months, New Zealand has enjoyed the reputation as the little island that could.

The so-called "team of 5 million" has lived under the threatof strict and sharp lockdowns in exchange for the comfort of knowing it would not have to live with COVID-19 in the community.

And for a while, there was a sense of pride and unity over that approach.

However, things have now changed.

On Monday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was time the country transitioned away from the elimination strategy a huge departure from the approach much of the countryhad bought into a long time ago.

"Elimination was important because we didn't have vaccines.Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things," she said.

"We need to continue to contain and control the virus as much as possible while we make our transition from a place where we only use heavy restrictions to a place where we use vaccines and everyday public health measures.

"This is a change in approach we were always going to make over time. Our Delta outbreak has accelerated that transition."

One commentatorsaid the change "felt like a form of whiplash".

Another said it was a political and policy tipping point for the Prime Minister.

AP: Mark Baker

Ms Ardern was re-elected in a landslide victory in October, with Labor securing 50 per cent of the vote and enough seats to form government on its own.

It was a huge endorsement of the Prime Minister and her approach to managing the pandemic to that point.

"Her victory last year was almost entirely a function of the popularity of the elimination strategy, and also the success of it," professor of politics at Massey UniversityRichard Shawtold the ABC.

"People felt safe within fortress New Zealand.

"There's long been a sense in New Zealandthat if there are problems in the outside world, we can throw up the barriers and go bush, which is what we did last year, so Ardern was picking up people who would have been lifelong National Party voters, but who appreciated the strategy and the clarity of messaging,and now that's all gone."

Professor Shaw said the moveaway from elimination and the confusion around the current messaging was a political risk for Ms Ardern.

"It's too soon yet to know what kind of impact it would have on her personal popularity, or the government in general, but it is quite a significant moment in contemporary New Zealand politics," he said.

"The risk plays out in various ways.

"The obvious risk is that the disease gets out of control and all of the goodwill that Ardern and her government have accrued over the last 18 months will very rapidly dribble away into the sand."

Reuters:Fiona Goodall

Despite the popularity of Ms Ardern's initial approach, New Zealand has not been immune to anti-lockdown sentiment and protests.

There have also been calls from New Zealanders stranded overseas and from businesses that rely on seasonal workersfor the borders to open.

Recently, former prime minister and National Party leader Sir John Key penned an opinion piece calling for a new strategy, one that would see the "smug hermit kingdom" of New Zealandrejoin the global community.

"Some people might like to continue the North Korean option. I am not one of them," he wrote.

The most recent outbreak, which began in August, kept Auckland residents under alert level 4 restrictions for five weeks.

These are some of the strictest lockdown conditions in the world, prohibiting takeaway food and coffee, and closing all businesses not considered essential effectively placing everyone under quarantine conditions.

For the country's most populous city, it wasa serious blow to the economy and one that has not let up.

Auckland then moved to alert level 3. Thecity is now under settings that sit somewhere between level 3 and level 2, but the number of cases is still increasing, and the infections arebeing found outside of Auckland.

The Waikato region is under alert level 3 restrictions.

Supplied:General Council of the Samoan Assemblies of God in New Zealand

In August, just one case of COVID-19, which had not yet been confirmed as the Delta variant, plunged the whole of the country into a level 4 lockdown.

Yesterday, there were 29 new cases of community transmission, while no regions of the country were under the strictest lockdown.

"For many New Zealanders, the reality of needing to shift from a strict elimination strategy to a differently calibrated strategy due to the change in the nature of the virus is going to take some time to adapt to because we've had 18 months of one story, which is, 'We can eliminate it,'" Professor Shaw said.

Maori and Pacific people have lower rates of vaccination and higher rates of health complications. Pacific people representednearly 60 per cent of all cases COVID-19 in the August outbreak.

Auckland councillor and Samoan community representative Efeso Collins said his community was not ready to move away from the elimination strategy.

"We're worried. There is still a high level of weariness in South Auckland because we know the outbreaks have happened here, and because we present with co-morbidities, we know we're going to be the most affected in any outbreak," he said.

"As opposed to the other sides of Auckland, which are keen to get out of about and connect with people. It's a difficult balancing act when you've got essentially a tale of two cities."

Instagram: Efoso Collins

Mr Collins said he feared it would be vulnerable communities shouldering the increased risk that came with livingwith the virus.

"I think this is a real measure of our humanity," he said.

"We're pandering a little bit to the wealthier, middle class of Auckland.They haven't experienced the level of loss and anguish that we have in South Auckland so they don't know what we're going through."

Supplied: South Seas Healthcare

As the Prime Minister announced the transition towards the new approach, she pointed squarely to the reliance on vaccines.

"At the beginning of this outbreak, we said we were adopting an approach of elimination while we vaccinated that was the right choice and the only choice," she said.

Ms Ardern said at that time only 25 per cent of Aucklanders were fully vaccinated, but that figure was now up to 52 per cent.

Yesterday, the New Zealand Ministry of Health also announced 50 per cent of the entire country's eligible population was now fully vaccinated.

Experts called for clarity around the strategy going forward, saying immunity was not yet high enough to prevent widespread community transmission.

"The change in tack signalled by the government means it is really a matter of time before COVID finds its way to all corners of New Zealand," University of Canterbury COVID-19 modeller Michael Plank said.

"As we transition from an elimination to a suppression strategy, the government will have to tread a very narrow path to avoid overwhelming our hospitals.

"As vaccination rates increase, restrictions can be progressively eased, but if we relax too much, there is a risk the number of hospitalisations could start to spiral out of control."

One leading intensive care doctor has said New Zealand didnot have enough ICU beds for business as usual.

Reuters:Loren Elliott

While New Zealand enters a new phase of its pandemic response, Australia is planning to open its borders.

From late April until the end of July this year, so-called "green zone" flights flew between Australia and New Zealand in a travel bubble, with those on board walking off the plane and into the community, bypassing hotel quarantine.

But a month into the Delta outbreak in New South Wales, Ms Ardern said the risk had become too great and the bubble would be suspended.

A spokesperson from the New Zealand Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet said a review of the suspension would take place in mid-to-late November.

"This will give New Zealand time to ensure our vaccination rates climb higher," they said.

"Quarantine free travel was established on the basis that there was little to no community transmission occurring in both countries."

Currently, people can only enter New Zealand from Australia on "red zone" flights before heading into hotel quarantine. Soon, some of those travellers will face further conditions.

"Full vaccination will become a requirement for non-New Zealand citizens aged 17 and over arriving into the country from November 1," the department spokesperson said.

While New Zealanders lookfor clarity around what next, and Ms Ardern seeks to reassure them, Professor Shaw says there is also "an opportunity".

"One thing we know about Ardern is she is very, very good in moments of risk.She knows how to narrate a crisis point," he said.

"This is the highest-risk moment of the last 18 months for her, but I wouldn't underestimate her capacity to communicate her way through this and to take a significant wedge of public support with her."

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Why Jacinda Ardern giving up on eliminating COVID-19 is a political gamble for the popular PM - ABC News

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