Ardern’s Covid lockdown finds favour as New Zealand watches Sydney’s Delta disaster

To overseas eyes, going into national lockdown over a single case should have been a hard sell, even for an extraordinarily popular prime minister such as Jacinda Ardern.

But a disastrous outbreak of the Delta variant in Sydney has helped galvanise New Zealand’s “team of 5 million” – and across the country, the government’s tough strategy on Covid-19 has enjoyed widespread popular support.

On Tuesday, New Zealand was plunged into a national, level 4 lockdown – the highest level of restrictions – as the country announced its first local case of the Delta variant.

That news was greeted with a degree of surprise, and some criticism from overseas figures. Ex-politician and brexiter Nigel Farage said Ardern had “lost her marbles”. A presenter for GB News – a partisan UK television station that has struggled in the ratings – said “Jacinda Ardern’s zero Covid fantasy is nothing short of a never ending nightmare.” Writer Glenn Greenwald called the move “demented, oblivious to the costs of sustained isolation”.

But in-country, the loudest overseas critics of its elimination approach have been mostly greeted with bemusement or defiance. New Zealanders have consistently supported even the toughest anti-Covid measures. About 80% rated the government’s Covid-19 response as overall good, according to polling commissioned by the Spinoff in February, and 59% rated the response as “excellent”. The satirical hashtag #NZhellhole, which pokes fun at some of the more hysterical reactions to NZ lockdowns, was again trending on Wednesday.

“If [overseas commentators] are surprised then they haven’t been paying attention,” says Dr Siouxsie Wiles, one of the country’s prominent epidemic communicators. In New Zealand, Wiles says, “the vast majority of people understand what we are up against, and are supportive of our response.”

The proof, experts say, is in the pudding. New Zealand has watched carefully as much of the world struggled with suppression strategies, or allowed the virus to spread uncontrolled.

In contrast, the elimination strategy “has served us extremely well in New Zealand”, epidemiologist and public health prof Michael Baker says. “It results in this long list of huge benefits relative to the alternatives: very low mortality, high economic performance – and also by all the indicators of people returning to a normal life with minimal restrictions.”

New Zealand’s strict border controls have allowed citizens to live relatively normal, unimpeded lives for most of the past year – complete with packed restaurants, music festivals, and uninterrupted schooling. The country has surpassed the US and UK on measures including unemployment, quality of life, freedom of movement, and debt to GDP ratios. It has also suffered a relatively tiny number of deaths, hospitalisations, or serious illness and disability from Covid-19.

“We have spent very little time under restrictions compared to other countries,” says Wiles. “And we know that the stricter those restrictions are, if you use them well – we’ve lived those benefits. We’ve been living in this incredible bubble.”

Asked on Tuesday by a reporter what she would say to people who questioned the need for a level 4 lockdown, Ardern responded with one word: “Australia.”

“We’ve seen the dire consequences of taking too long to act in other countries, not least our neighbours,” Ardern said. “We have seen what can happen elsewhere if we fail to get on top of it. We only get one chance.”

Across the Tasman, the state of New South Wales has struggled to contain its outbreak, and as of Wednesday, it had 8,000 active cases.

Watching that outbreak, New Zealand could seeing what worked or didn’t, Wiles says. It had watched how a slower lockdown – even when combined with world-class contact tracing – had failed to contain the Delta variant in Australia’s most populous state.

It’s a similar advantage to the head-start New Zealand also held at the outset of the pandemic, when its elimination strategy was informed by watching a devastating outbreak overwhelm Italy’s health systems.

“We are one of the last countries in the world to have the Delta variant in our community,” Ardern said on Tuesday. “This has given us the chance to learn from others. While this is a situation no one wants to be in, there are benefits to being amongst the last … to learn from experience overseas, and what actions work and what actions don’t.”

Support for the lockdowns has been broad, but not universal – a small but vocal number of anti-lockdown New Zealanders gathered to protest the measures on Wednesday.

But crucially, both the current lockdown and New Zealand’s overall tough elimination strategy have support from across the political spectrum. Unlike the US or UK, New Zealand has not had a cohort of elected politicians who built a political brand and identity on rejecting Covid lockdowns, masks, or other public health measures.

“A political ideology of, “We’ve got to just let people get sick and die,” … we haven’t seen that much here,” Wiles says.

The opposition have supported Ardern’s lockdowns, with leader Judith Collins saying today, “It is better to act now to stamp out the spread of Covid-19 than to take half measures which do not work and result in it taking longer to shut down the spread.”

“There’s very high support from politicians who – understandably – are looking at the polls and know the public is hugely supportive of this approach,” Baker says.

“The ultimate poll was the last election – a Covid election – and New Zealand gave resounding support for the elimination approach.”

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