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Once Covid world-beaters, the mood in New Zealand is changing – and Jacinda Ardern knows it | Tim Watkin

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One of the many quotes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that he probably never said, was that he preferred his generals lucky, rather than able. When it’s a matter of life and death, “give me lucky generals,” he’s reputed to have pleaded.

It’s a view that New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern echoed this week when she announced that Auckland – home to about a third of all New Zealanders – was moving out of the strict level 4 lockdown to level 3. Replace “generals” with “policy” and you get a pretty accurate sense of cabinet’s big call this week. In a country that has essentially tattooed “go hard, go early” on to one collective arm and “stay home, stay safe” on to the other, the decision to let about 300,000 people go back to their places of work when Auckland’s still getting 15-30 cases a day in the community is a turning point in the government’s approach to this pandemic. Both in public health terms and politically. A year ago, public opinion wouldn’t have worn such faith in “lucky generals”. But that was a year ago.

Some have declared cabinet’s decision the end of New Zealand’s elimination strategy. Some – ignoring the evidence of just 27 dead and our distinctly not overwhelmed hospital wards – claim it’s proof elimination and lockdowns haven’t worked.

Others, including Ardern and her cabinet colleagues, insist level 3 is still all about elimination. But the language has undeniably changed. The strictly evidence-led approach of the past 18 months is muted and this week the language of luck has stuck out like one of Napoleon’s bicorne hats.

In truth New Zealand’s ridden its luck a lot this pandemic. The failure to properly test border staff, people escaping MIQs but never spreading the disease, the slow initial vaccine rollout that side-lined GPs, dithering on salvia testing and purpose-built quarantine centres … yeah, luck has always been part of the story, alongside getting the big calls right. But this is different.

This week just about every epidemiologist has used the words “calculated risk” and epidemiologist Michael Baker said flat out, “it’s a gamble”. Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins was reduced to insisting that, “We’ve still got a very good shot at getting down to zero [community cases]”.

Betting our biggest city on “a good shot” is quite the shift. For all that the government says that elimination remains the goal, basic maths suggests this week’s decision has lengthened the odds of achieving that.

Political leaders are always making deals between today and tomorrow. Protect superannuation now, risk less for our children. Cut taxes in the hope of fiscal stimulus now but lower the nation’s savings. And on it goes. For 18 months Labour has banked public health, saving lives like taxes. Now though, the government is for the first time toying with the public health equivalent of loosening the purse-strings. Choosing the now over what’s to come. Risking their legacy as “Covid beaters” for the sake of Auckland’s short-term mental and economic health. Backing the lucky generals over the able.

It’s a big move for Ardern. Not least because amid the polarising adoration and fury she inspires, the prime minister is by instinct and training a conservative. Stubbornly cautious. So why this “calculated risk”? Why bet on luck?

In part, she must feel confident from her data that the number of community cases won’t blow out. A surge in the next two weeks and talk of a return to level 4 would be devastating for all. And in one sense she may well feel she’s not so much increasing the risk as replacing lockdowns with vaccinations as her key Covid-busting tool; moving her public health chips from black to red.

Yet, even if the government data is better than the public knows, it’s a greater political risk than she’s taken previously in this pandemic. So, why?

For a start, there was a growing political cost in staying at level 4. Having initially spoken of a “short and sharp” lockdown and built expectations in the past fortnight of a move down levels, she had painted herself into something of a corner. And as much of the rest of the world puts lockdowns behind them, our continued reliance on them could undermine our reputation as global winners in the Covid stakes. And hers.

What’s more, you don’t need a focus group or even a trip to the pub to know that the mood in this country is changing. The government’s short-lived plan to open up after Christmas has been thrown into all kinds of doubt by Delta. People are grasping in the dark for what’s next.

Frustration in Auckland has been rising and cabinet would have known it was at risk of losing the crowd; there’s no point imposing level 4 when you know people are going to change their behaviour regardless. Part of good public health management is knowing how much people can take, and Auckland was cracking.

Don’t forget, elections are still won and lost in Auckland. Labour recovered in the provinces at the last election and over-performed in rural areas. But Ardern knows she can’t hold those numbers and Auckland will be key to another term.

Labour will be wary of the fact voters don’t always reward heroic wartime leaders, once that crisis has faded. They look for new skills for new times. Just ask Winston Churchill. And while Ardern may have the good fortune of facing the worst opposition since, well, her own party’s woeful efforts through most of the 2010s, she knows such luck – and opposition leader Judith Collins – won’t last for ever.

So while New Zealanders won’t truly know whether or not we’ve abandoned our elimination strategy for another week or two and much will depend on Aucklanders’ choices during that time (not to mention the weather this weekend), there’s no doubt the public mood is changing.

So Ardern looks to have decided that if she’s going to gamble, it may as well be on the behaviour of New Zealanders as the behaviour of the Delta variant.

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The Groucho

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