To what end?

It is two years today since my first post about pandemics (and the economy). Rereading it, and another the following week, over the weekend and it was interesting to reflect on what issues had (and hadn’t) sprung to mind. But back then, however fearful people might or might not have been initially, few would have supposed that two years on we’d be labouring under new, and even more onerous, restrictions, and that for the best part of two years few of us would have been able to travel.

I was quite supportive of the need for restrictions, especially at the border, for quite a long time. Even last year, when the government was so slow to roll out the vaccine, doing everything possible to keep the virus out would have seemed appropriate (ie more than the government actually did). As for domestic restrictions, in both 2020 and 2021 the government clearly overshot, imposing (and renewing) some restrictions that seemed more about asserting power and showing who was in control than about public health, and others that failed all tests of decent humanity. (None, of course, were ever justified by any sort of cost-benefit analysis – an abdication of any sort of decent policy analysis that I hope one day our politicians and senior officials look back on in shame.)

But that was then. Since late last year, the government’s approach has increasingly lost any coherence. Despite high vaccination rates, we’ve had extreme coercion used on those reluctant to get vaccinated, and we’ve lurched down a path of “papers please” where those who refuse to show their government papers are prohibited (either by law directly, or enabled by it) from undertaking many of the normal activities of life. All this as (a) it was clear that the biggest risk posed by the unvaccinated was to themselves, and (b) that lots of vaccinated people were getting Covid anyway, apparently often/mostly from other vaccinated people. Government guidelines as to when it would ease restrictions were repeatedly ignored by the government itself. The government meanwhile had confirmed that it had given up on elimination some time ago.

And then, of course, came Omicron – two months ago in other parts of the world. The experience of Omicron so far seems to be that it is highly highly infectious, partly as a result waves don’t last long, and among the vaccinated (even more so the boosted) the rates of serious illness and/or death seem remarkably low. In some places – the UK is the most obvious example – even with a lot of cases, numbers in hospital ICU care did not even increase during the Omicron wave (but there is a variety of experiences, depending in part on starting points). Nowhere, it seems, is there evidence of the spectre of “overwhelmed health system” having been realised (although you might expect, even hope, that systems would be put under some pressure).

As for our government, first it seemed that they shut down for the holidays. In normal times, no one would begrudge them that, but this was something more akin to “wartime” – a major threat unfolding, inter alia, just across the Tasman. You might have thought that all hands would have been on deck, led by the Prime Minister, with planning (and public consultation on those plans) advancing rapidly. And vaccination centres operating night and day to get vaccinated many more of those eligible for a third dose. Oh, and the child vaccination programme might have got going before Christmas too. But no, this was the government of complacency – we still don’t have their “plan” (apparently something is coming on Wednesday) – and now controls.

Even on what we have seen, policy is all over the place. Last week, they stopped allocating MIQ rooms for ordinary New Zealanders, but that was (a) done with no ministerial announcement, and (b) to affect arrivals a couple of months hence (when who knows what the environment will be). They keep telling us (sensibly, rightly) that Omicron will spread in the community, but then on Friday the government quietly put in place much-extended isolation requirements – of the sort that perhaps might make some sense (if complied with) in an elimination model, but which make no sense now – the more so as they will powerfully deter some from even getting tested.

And then yesterday we got the new general restrictions. From both the PM and the Director-General we were told they were still aiming to “stamp out” the outbreak, but even (especially?) they must know they are just making things up now – a Level 4 lockdown in August didn’t stamp out that outbreak (or wasn’t pursued long enough to), and this lot of restrictions is nothing like Level 4. The more realistic rhetoric/spin seems to be about “slowing the spread” – there are big adverts in the papers this morning enjoining us to get with the team, play our part.

But why do we want to “stop the spread”? I don’t. We are already two months behind much of the world – two months of repressive domestic restrictions and onerous border controls – and for what? Various other places are coming out the other side now, not having had particularly bad health experiences – England, Ireland, the eastern states of Australia, South Africa – while Ardern and her colleagues – apparently with little opposition from National – seem to be determined to try to slow the incoming tide. They’ve provided no supporting analysis, no cost-benefit analysis, there are no end-point dates for these controls (which may not do much “good” anyway, while disrupting lives), and no published criteria – not that on the past record they would ever stick to them – for getting controls off, getting our lives back to normal, binning the “papers please” regime, and opening the border (even just for New Zealanders).

Events are being cancelled all over the place, and whereas (say) we watched the Ashes test in Hobart a couple of weeks ago with large local crowds in attendance (in the middle of a not-small Omicron outbreak) the government is going to condemn us to the grim spectre of test matches with no crowds at all.

Of course, it could be worse. The government could – and may yet – resort to more onerous restrictions (have they done anything to prepare the public for several weeks of 30-40 deaths a day?) but it is unclear what they are trying to achieve, and how their cobbled-together policies fit a strategy. We hear talk about “flattening the curve” but that seems like a recipe for months and months of controls – the sort of restrictions that may appeal to public health professors and some left-wing politicians, but which should generally be anathema in a free and open society. There is talk, always talk, about getting our booster rate up – but (a) whose fault is it they weren’t offered earlier?, and b) even now, because of the delay, the percentage of our population with boosters is already higher than (say) the Australian share 6 weeks ago when their outbreak was getting underway.

People oriented to controls can always dream up reasons for delays – and I might have had a touch more sympathy if the government had shown itself ever willing to get rid of controls that were no longer self-evidently necessary – but they never attempt to show an overwhelming case. In an interesting Newsroom article over the weekend, on preparing for Omicron, Prof Michael Baker justified his case for more restrictions on the basis that “several hundred people” might die if we just let Omicron sweep through. Quite possibly – if one takes the Australian numbers as a guide – but 34000 people a year die in New Zealand, and that number fluctuates (easily plus or minus 1000) from year to year. It simply does not justify restrictions without limit, and lives lived – unable to sensibly plan – at the whim of politicians.

baker

And, of course, we are rightly reminded of the limitations of the public health system. It was a reasonable argument two years ago, but not now, when the government has done little or nothing to boost capacity over two years, and now wants to put us under their (somewhat half-hearted) controls anyway. Sure, there would be likely to be some weeks of extreme pressure on the system, but it is hard to conceive of any serious cost-benefit analysis – that value freedom at all – justifying society-wide restraints, indefinitely, to avoid a few weeks difficulty (and even some otherwise avoidable loss of life).

Now, of course, Omicron will be disruptive even if the government does nothing. Baker, in that same article, seemed to use that as justification for “oh well, we might as well just have lockdowns then”. But there is a big difference between government controls – backed by the coercive power of the state – and individuals and firms taking their own precautions, calibrated to their own individual risk and risk tolerance. I’m pretty sure no one would put off a quiet swim at a deserted beach, or a driving lesson for their child, except the state compelled them,

(And I say all this as someone who is almost 60, and hasn’t had the best of health in the last couple of years. There are risks to life, and – fully vaccinated and soon boosted – I’m quite happy to run those modest risks. I’m not happy seeing events cancelled willy-nilly at government fiat, or governments still stopping people travelling (indefinitely), and so on.)

There are lots of things the government could and should have done much better re Covid over the last 12-18 months. Had they been done we might be in a slightly better position now, but it is water under the bridge now, and nothing about the government or Ministry of Health gives any reason for confidence that we should put up with indefinite restrictions on their say so. They have the power of course, but they abuse and misuse it (down to and including the arrogant disdain evident in the way the government refuses to even put out case/hospitalisation data at a fixed time each day – a simple thing in some ways, but one that simply reveals their indifference and, quite possibly, incompetence).

Better to (a) scrap the vaccine pass system (which simply institutionalises repression, of the sort that should be alien to this country, for no significant public health benefit), (b) open the border to NZ citizens, and (c) cut the isolation requirements to something like those in the US and UK, with a view (d) to following the English lead and looking to remove all Covid restrictions by, say, 31 March (subject to renewal only by vote of Parliament, not arbitrary ministerial fiat with no consultation or transparency).

Oh, and release all the relevant Cabinet papers and ministerial briefings within two days of decisions having been made. These are our lives, our freedoms. We are not supposed to be just playthings of the government. The smallest regulatory changes in normal times have to go through proper (if often faux) consultative processes. Sometimes in emergencies needs must, but this was Omicron – they had the best part of two months to be prepared; do the analysis, test it in public, consult. Instead, perhaps we’ll see a “plan” on Wednesday, perhaps we’ll see the papers and analysis (if any exists) six months from now.

31 thoughts on “To what end?

  1. You are giving the bear a much needed poke Michael – but the skin is remarkably thick !( I suspect the thick coat will be shed rapidly as election season arrives .
    Enjoy being able to consider your perspectives too.
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “At the whim of politicians” says it all. The COVID emergency has been this government’s get out of jail card, diverting attention from their significant failures elsewhere and from the ethnonationalist agenda they now appear intent on implementing in health, education and the Three Waters. With meaningless and deceitful statements like “Stamping Omicron out” Ardern is playing to her devoted audience of mainly female adorers who are Labour’s key support base. This is not a competent government; for them reality begins and ends with announcements and endless PR spin. Nothing is actually delivered. Some $50 billion has been spent from the COVID fund without a single extra ICU bed being added; where are the rapid test kits and the antivirals available in other, once comparable countries? The casual cruelty that has been and continues to be inflicted is unbelievable in a democracy. Vaccine mandates are pointless and discriminatory as you suggest; many thousands of New Zealanders are locked out of their own country. But Jacinda shares our pain, she has cancelled her wedding – was a registry office not good enough? And so this dystopian theatre of the absurd rolls on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I might have added to my post that now significant public protests are also banned, but there is no self-denying ordinance been taken by the govt to stop them ramming controversial legislation through Parliament during that (indefinite) period.

      Liked by 3 people

      • It will be so interesting to watch the political polls over the months ahead. While I deplore the way the government has handled the whole covid situation much like you, thus far it doesn’t seem to have done much damage to its popularity. That may change, of course, and I for one hope it does.

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  3. Well said Michael,
    You could be be even harsher without being extreme. We shall have to claw our lives back and rescue the economy from its ethnic plan for separation. There is no prize for testing or isolating groups of employees. The benefit is economic self harm so omicron will be massively deservedly under reported.

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    • I guess we are fortunate the our current Govt has not made stronger moves to shut down the anti sentiment it’s now slowly attracting. However much damage has been done to our democracy and that will take some effort to claw back. The repairs to what is now a racially polarised society, thanks to Jacinda’s commitment to promote her socialism of the back of it, will take much longer than we dare anticipate.

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  4. This reminds me of the old saying about generals always fighting the last war. That’s happening here. They’re tweaking Delta plans when they need a new approach

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  5. congratulations on another excellent post.
    It is truly amazing that the Govt continue to rely on the advice of people whose field of expertise is extremely narrow and whose advice explicitly focuses only on first order effects. It is clear that the second and third round effects are far more important to the vast majority of New Zealanders who have dome everything they can to make themselves safe and now need to get on with their lives.

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  6. “But there is a big difference between government controls – backed by the coercive power of the state – and individuals and firms taking their own precautions, calibrated to their own individual risk and risk tolerance.”

    This is a key part for me. Thanks Michael.

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  7. Well done Michael!

    The Government’ policies are incoherent and they are not at all about the science, as they like to claim. Vaccines are not sterilising, which means inside 12 months most peoples antibodies fade. So its better to let Omicron – a relatively harmless variant – in and circulate it than to keep it out and yo-yo between restrictions and boosters. For mine, i dont believe that the human immune system will react well to endless boosters and i woildnt mind betting it leads to auto-immune disorders in some people if continued, but thats just speculation. What we do know is that the vaccine protects from severe illness but not infection or transmission, a point Moderna’s chief scientist was making way back in 2020.

    As an offshore kiwi, i believe this government has absolutely trampled on my rights and has created a dual citizenship; for those resident and those non resident. Its failed to take any advice on the costs associated with their policies and its behaved in a draconian and authoritarian fashion and its become unkind and repugnant. I have good reason to visit NZ, to see my son whom ive not seen for two years, and my elderly parents, and to conduct business. Perhaps id get in easily if i were Larry Paige or Benedict Cumerbach?

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  8. I expect you are right about the low risk associated with Omicron but I’d like more scientific and less anecdotal evidence before relaxing the borders etc. The trouble is governments find it more difficult to remove a regulation that to impose one. Who wants to be the person who allowed people die?

    Pre-Covid France had roughly 600 deaths daily and currently roughly 10% of France’s population ‘has Covid’. So a death rate of 60 per day would be expected even if Omicron was total benign. [Note very very rough figures for daily deaths ‘with Covid’ in France is 200 – maybe those are mainly other versions of Covid-19 such as Delta]. For NZ the equivalent figure for a benign Omicron would be ~5 deaths per day. Which politician or bureaucrat would take responsibility for these 5 daily deaths despite them being statistical phantoms?

    There is something we can do: isolate when feeling ill. 104 years ago the Spanish Flu killed 10% of those it infected. Apparently it was made more dangerous because the serious cases in the WW1 trenches were stretchered out to field and then on to major hospitals. This caused the more dangerous variants to be spread while the mild cases stayed put. The govt should be doing everything it can to minimise movement of people with Omicron symptoms.

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    • Interesting angle Bob. The border restrictions are going to be freshly salient within days. Today we had 10 community Omicron cases and 50 new cases in MIQ. Within days there will be 200 then 500 then 1000 cases in the community, and the govt is going to have a big comms challenge justifying barring entry to NZers when the case numbers are already dominated by community spread.

      But the old advice of “stay home if sicK” remains a very good one. (As someone who stays home most of the time anyway, I’m running a little mental sweepstake on which of the rest of the family will bring it home first.)

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      • Predicting numbers of Covid cases has proven tricky in the past. For example when they gave up eliminating Delta everyone assumed a growth in the number of community cases instead it has been slowly dropping. If and when NZ has say 500 cases per day then they must lift restrictions on NZ’s returning. Until then it makes sense to learn from other countries about testing and treatment. Is a specifically Omicron vaccine in the pipeline? Open the borders today and the inevitable wave of cases will arrive a couple of weeks earlier. Possibly the best solution is a compromise that permits ever increasing numbers of Kiwis to return and initially selecting them from the least infected countries.

        I’ve just realised my paragraph can be summed up by your “”The border restrictions are going to be freshly salient within days.”” The word days implies not weeks, months or years. You may be thinking of days this week; I’m thinking sometime before the end of February.

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      • I’m working from say 10 community cases today doubling roughly every 2 days. If so we should be in multiple hundreds per day by Waitangi Day. But time will tell. (I’m not optimistic about the govt changing course soon, but am intrigued how they will answer the questions from eg the Grounded Kiwis group when the domestic case numbers get to those levels ( at which point contact tracing etc will have broken down)).

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  9. Omicron was a gift, we should be encouraging its spread not delaying it!

    Keep this is mind: in an average year influenza kills about 500 Kiwis. I would expect about the same number to die from covid this year.

    The interesting thing to watch will be how many die from influenza this winter, it might well be fewer due to the same people being susceptible to both illnesses, but it might be higher because no-one died from it last year and resistance has faded a bit.

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  10. Nicely summarised Michael.

    As an expat who has first hand experience of how the UAE and UK have managed the pandemic, I am at a total loss to understand why New Zealanders haven’t woken up to the fact that Covid will enter the country eventually regardless of the populations vaccinated percentage. Just look at Australia.

    It has been demonstrated the world over that the best approach to cope with this pandemic is to vaccinate the population and execute a controlled opening of the borders – preferrably over summer. Failed on that.

    NZ utilised the luxury of being an island nation to stop the initial wave but squandered the time in a slow vaccine rollout (I was double vaccinated a month before my 70+ year old parents received their first jab) and failed to bolster the medical capacity/capability to accommodate the patients who will be seriously ill.
    Instead, this time has resulted in a totally overpriced housing market (10-11x average wage) and the death of thousands of small businesses and the tourism industry.
    The damage to NZ business and tourism will be felt for a long time to come
    And still no ones knows when the borders will open.

    Whilst the rest of the world hopefully moves into the endemic phase NZ is still to experience its pandemic. The next 12 months for NZ will be ugly as the virus spreads and winter approaches.
    The medically vunerable and elderly are still at risk, a highly infectious variant and limited medical capacity is only going to make it worse.

    Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. An often overlooked fact is that all of the covid cases that have arrived from overseas (666 in the past 21 days) are “fully vaccinated”, tested and forced to comply with masking and hygiene requirements.
    The ongoing government (and their media) demonisation and persecution of the unvaccinated would be a little more excusable if the vaccine was truly effective and the mortality rate a lot higher.
    I’m disgusted with the way fundamental rights and principles have been so casually disregarded and by the PM gloating about creating two classes of citizen. In solidarity, no booster for me and a refusal to go anywhere that requires a passport. Guess I’m no longer part of the flock of five million.

    PM Ardern: two classes of people – yip yip! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgnEJXdV_Qk

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  12. Alongside ‘the team of 5 million’ we could add another demographic ‘everyone an expert’. Awake in the middle of the night and experience a light-bulb moment – you are an expert. Trawl the darker corners of the web and you are an expert. Read the instructions on the back of a Panadol packet and you are an expert.
    Not entirely facetiously I could suggest that the worst aspect of the arrival of Omicron is the arrival of another open field for the Covid knowalls to frolic in.
    Sometime in the future, following a good time for reflection and a return to sanity, the history of these events will be written and re-written. My guess is that NZ’s response, warts and all, will be judged as pretty good.

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    • What’s “pretty good” about failing to expand ICU capacity, about banning rapid testing and dropping the ball on antiviral treatments? About ruthlessly persecuting those who choose not to take a vaccine of limited effectiveness? About banning citizens from returning home, some even terminally ill? We were endowed with huge natural advantages. Our response is degenerating into an authoritarian shambles.

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    • Well, it would be good before we get too far into the future and history is ‘written and re-written’ and we all take for writ statements such as, ‘go-hard and go early’ & ‘team of five million’ that there is a Royal Commission so provide a more honest account of events so New Zealand is better prepared for the next pandemic than it was for this one.

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      • Agree, altho I’m not really expecting there to be a Royal Commission unless something new goes v v badly wrong from here. What interest of the government would be served by setting one up (esp one that was staffed by genuinely independent people).

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    • Whether you accept the ”one source of truth” mantra from the PM and her sycophantic media is entirely up to you Geoff. The modellers have been consistently and wildly wrong and the likes of “Nana” Baker’s draconic recommendations are nothing short of totalitarian.

      There’s always two sides to every story so you can’t blame folk for looking elsewhere when they’re only being fed one. Some of the revelations coming out are cause for a great deal of concern so I hope we see a proper bi partisan investigation as PB mentions.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you Michael. Let’s hope the opposition parties learn from you commendable assessment.

    Does the data set used to calculate the annual variance in death series you’ve used in your chart also provide categories of death, e.g. CVD, Cancer, Diabetes etc? The narratives of various societies and or associations representing patients afflicted with such diseases suggests numbers might be headed up, i.e. the roughly treated are likely not represented in elective cancelations.

    Thanks again.

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    • Not sure, esp in a numerical analysis, altho policy advice that carefully identified and weighed all relevant costs and benefits should nonetheless put a significant weight on such freedoms. There are some things for which there is no price at which we would/should sacrifice them; others for which the price should be set v v high.

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  14. Excellent points.
    Not sure if you’ve seen this but has some fascinating stats on the impact of alert levels on business operational capacity. Interestingly showing much greater impact (albeit self-reported) – and therefore presumably cost to business and the economy between level 1 and 2 restrictions – than I would have picked.
    https://www.stats.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/Business-operations-survey/Business-operations-survey-2020/Download-data/business-operations-survey-2020.xlsx

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