'Things have changed,” Judith Collins declares, sitting in her Beehive government office. New Zealand’s National party leader is fresh off launching her alternative pandemic response plan, marking the first time the main opposition has significantly diverged from prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s largely popular elimination strategy.
The arrival of the Delta variant in Nieu-Seeland twee maande gelede, causing an outbreak that the government is struggling to stamp out, has shown that elimination is “clearly not working,” Collins says.
Until now, New Zealand has been widely lauded for its approach, enduring fewer lockdowns compared to other nations and suffering just 27 sterftes.
Though the opposition has criticised the government for its slow vaccine rollout and the chaotic system to allow New Zealanders to come home, the elimination plan itself has enjoyed broad cross-party support.
But as Auckland, the centre of the Delta outbreak, toils through its second month of lockdown, the consensus is beginning to fracture. The country’s largest city is currently in a level 3 lockdown – the second highest setting – while the rest of the country is able to enjoy relative freedom, though with some limitations on gatherings and requirements for mask-use.
The government’s strategy to stamp out community transmission has relied on strict border measures, short lockdowns when cases emerge, and rapid contact tracing. It has been imperfect at times, but largely a successful one. It has committed to pursuing this policy, despite recent moves deemed to be “a calculated risk”, calling the strategy into question.
It is a method that has garnered both international curiosity and widespread domestic support, so much so, that it led the government to an overwhelming majority at the 2020 verkiesing, and has positioned Ardern well above her peers in the preferred prime minister ranks – 33 points ahead of her nearest competition.
It may come as no surprise then that challenging a strategy delivered by one of the most popular leaders and governments in the country’s recent political history, as an opposition party, could be at best be construed as tone deaf, and at worst, a death wish. When the former National party leader, Simon Bridges did so in 2020, the public backlash led to a rapid tumble in his popularity and he was dumped from leadership.
But this week, as the number of Covid cases bounced from 12 cases one day to 45 the next, the political right pronounced elimination dead. Both National and its smaller rival, the ACT party, want to do away with it in favour of “vigorous suppression”. Both want to open the borders sooner rather than later, and both want to end lockdowns for good.
Until recently, Collins had been “very supportive” of the initial response to the pandemic.
“Even though it did take a little while to close the borders, they got on to it … the soundest move seemed to be to go into lockdowns, until we could assess as a country what was the right response," sy sê.
Then Delta came along, and Collins believes it has rendered the government’s response “inadequate”.
Options such as rapid antigen testing, saliva testing, stronger contact tracing methods and purpose-built managed isolation facilities should be seized upon, sy sê. “They have just slightly been asleep at the wheel.”
Collins says the country cannot continue down the path of lockdowns and is advocating for nation-wide lockdowns to be scrapped once 75% of the eligible population is vaccinated and reopening the border once 85% is vaccinated. Recent modelling from research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini suggests that at that rate, there could still be up to 7,000 deaths and 60,000 hospitalisations.
But Collins says that while “no deaths are acceptable”, she is a realist.
“When I get out of bed every morning, like everyone else does, and we go out and get into a car, we go on a cycle or a bike or a walk, there is always a danger.”
The party did not create their own modelling for their plan, instead opting to have it “thoroughly vetted” by experts working in the public sector, but Collins has declined to publicly name them for fear they will be ostracised.
The libertarian ACT party leader David Seymour, who released his own Covid response plan, has been less generous about the government’s Covid response, calling it “bumbling”.
“I wouldn’t describe it as an elimination strategy, I would describe it as a sporadic eradication strategy,” Seymour said.
He said using short, sharp, lockdowns and then reaping the benefits of a Covid-free community “no longer stacks up” with Delta. He believes the government is aware of this by signalling a desire to end lockdowns and reconnect with the world, but says they don’t have a coherent plan to do so.
Earlier in the month, the government signalled that its reopening plan, unveiled just days before the outbreak would have to be completely re-worked after the outbreak. But perhaps the prospect of closed borders is not as undesirable as the political right believes – delays to the plan have not made a particularly large dent in the government’s popularity.
There has been ongoing high-level public support the government’s approach, which has been borne out in its election results and the most recent polls, says the co-director of the Public Policy Institute, Lara Greaves. One survey last month showed three-quarters of New Zealanders supported the use of lockdowns, at least until vaccination targets had been reached.
There is anecdotal data about more people breaking lockdown moods, but there is nothing to suggest there has been a large decrease in support for the government and its strategy, Greaves adds.
Being an opposition party during a crisis is a difficult place to be, Greaves says, and more so in New Zealand where the government has “objectively done extremely well”.
It makes sense then, for the political right to focus on the economy’s recovery, in order to define themselves in the response, even if the economy has done well by international standards, Greaves said.
“That’s the potential for where a centre-right party could present a positive future.”
For Collins, departing from the elimination strategy is just “the right thing to do”, sy sê, adding that to dwell on the government’s past mistakes is not going to fix anything.
“I actually see that one of the problems my predecessors went through is: it was seen to be not the right time to be talking about the failures, as the government was trying to deal with what was essentially a wartime footing … So that is why we’re very focused on the future.”