Jacinda Ardern facing biggest challenge yet as New Zealand switches to Covid suppression

This week, New Zealand’s locked down cities woke to a brave new world of lifted restrictions: state-sanctioned picnics in parks, the prospect of reopening schools, a chance to reunite with friends and family. Infusing the visions of grass-stained blankets and beach-side beers, sin emabargo, is a strong dose of Covid anxiety. Cases continue to circulate in the community, and the country’s long-held commitment to elimination is being been cast off.

As New Zealand steps into the unknown with its Covid approach, so does its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Having brought the country through the pandemic largely unscathed so far, she was richly rewarded with political popularity and trust. Ahora, the prime minister faces the difficult task of guiding it through a new era of Covid suppression – and it could be the most significant political challenge she has faced yet.

“There’s going to be ongoing restrictions, more cases, more deaths – and that’s something Nueva Zelanda hasn’t hasn’t really seen yet,” says Clint Smith, a political communications worker and former communications strategist for Ardern.

“This is where it almost becomes ‘real’ for New Zealanders. The elimination strategy has meant that we haven’t faced the cases, and the deaths, and the restrictions in our daily lives in the way that people overseas have for the last year and a half. Keeping our collective heads up and focused on the solutions is going to be a huge challenge.”

One of the great virtues of New Zealand’s Covid-zero strategy was its clarity and simplicity. On posters and in press conferences, it could be distilled into a few words: stay home. Eliminate the virus. Save lives. Phasing that out means New Zealand steps out of black and white and into the endless greys of pandemic management, a realm of marginal calls and no-win decisions.

The country must transition from a single, front-loaded trade-off – harsh lockdowns and closed borders exchanged for a Covid-free life – to thousands of individual ones, each with its own bitter costs. Precisely how many deaths are too many? Do the benefits of opening schools outweigh the risks of Covid infections among unvaccinated children? Are cafes, picnics and shopping malls a worthy swap for higher death tolls among indigenous people?

These are the decisions governments make constantly, says political analyst Dr Lara Greaves, but Covid-19 forces them to make calls in a particularly brutal and public way.

“A lot of the decisions in policy and governance are around balancing things like finances and economics with the cost of human life, or the cost of a good year of a human life,” Greaves says.

“People always say, ‘you don’t want to see how a sausage is made’, and this is kind of along those lines – it’s that stuff behind the scenes that’s happening in government, those trade-offs that we don’t [usually] see as the general public.”

A menudo, those marginal trade-offs are ugly, and Ardern’s government hasn’t been forced to make this many of them before.

Fracturing a single large decision into thousands of smaller ones also makes the strategy harder to communicate, and easier to argue over. Elimination was so popular with voters that every major political party backed it.

But over the past two weeks, la Nacional, Act and Green parties have all peeled off from the government, vocally denouncing the new approach or offering new plans of their own. Ardern and her ministers continue to equivocate on whether elimination is over at all – a hemming and hawing that Smith says could hinder them from communicating a clear new vision for New Zealand’s path forward.

In one sense, Ardern could now be a victim of her own success, says Ben Thomas, a communications consultant and former National government staffer. The government’s elimination campaign was so compelling, and its results so strong, that it won huge support – polling above 80% through most of the pandemic.

“Part of the prime minister’s problem is that she did such a good job of rallying New Zealanders to this cause, of convincing them – correctly – that elimination was an achievable goal, and of instilling a real fear of the virus. That’s a very hard thing to unwind from,” Thomas says.

“Elimination was something that New Zealanders could be proud of, it brought us together and became a common goal. And the challenge now is to find – what is the common goal during a suppression strategy? Probably vaccination rates – but to give us this same pride that we had last year in our Covid response again that is the big challenge facing Jacinda and her team now.”

The most likely candidate for that new vision is vaccination, but it’s harder to capture the urgency of that message while simultaneously arguing the country is still eliminating the virus.

New Zealand’s vaccine rollout got off to a slow start. Their problem wasn’t unique – a number of countries successful in initial responses to Covid, including Australia and Japan, had similar delays securing vaccine supply. En abril, Ardern said New Zealand’s delivery schedule was slower than countries because its population was “not dying while they wait”.

Uptake since large shipments of doses began arriving has been strong, and at one point, New Zealand was administering more daily doses per 1,000 people than any other country. As of this weekend, 67% of the total population and 79% of the eligible (12+) population have had at least one dose. 53% of those eligible are fully immunised, o 45% of the full population. That’s a couple of percentage points behind Australia, far behind the UK, and will probably overtake the US in the coming weeks. The government is aiming to vaccinate everyone willing with at least one dose by end of year – but even if it succeeds, that could still leave months of Covid purgatory ahead, where large chunks of the population remain unprotected.

If New Zealanders are unhappy with the new approach, it is not yet clear how much it will hurt Labour’s leadership in the polls. En el 2020 elección, Labour won enough seats to govern alone – a rare outcome in New Zealand’s typically coalition-based political system, and a ringing endorsement of the Covid response.

“Ardern’s mammoth victory last year was wholly a result of the pandemic and Covid response,” says Thomas. “First of all because of the outstanding health outcomes – very low Covid deaths. The social outcomes – being largely untouched by lockdowns for most of the year, unlike a lot of our peer countries. But the third thing was the really strong economic rebound … which made older voters or traditionally conservative voters swing over to the government.”

If those gains start to dissolve, so too could some of that political support.

But if Ardern stumbles in the next stages of the pandemic, the opposition may be too fragmented and dysfunctional to take advantage of it. While Labour’s polling has already dropped from the historic highs of the last election, the Labour-Greens bloc has maintained a majority, and in the preferred prime minister stakes, Ardern is light-years ahead of her opposition: polling at 44%, versus National leader Judith Collins’ 5%.

“Labour’s popularity had already slipped before the latest outbreak, and the National party spectacularly failed to capitalise on that,” Thomas says. “The laws of political gravity say National should benefit from [a Labour drop]. If they can’t capitalise under these circumstances, there’s something very wrong with the leadership and with the party.”

And while New Zealand is now entering a tougher stage of the pandemic than those it has passed through before, Ardern tends to be at her best in a crisis – from the 15 marzo 2019 Christchurch terrorist attacks to the Whakaari volcanic eruption, to the early days of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen Ardern provide a vision in moments of crisis again and again,” Smith says. “It has been the defining aspect of her prime ministership. And she’s now in the position of having to come up with a new vision.”

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