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Dunne Speaks: The Unwelcome Game -Changer

The British Medical Association calls it “irresponsible”. The British scientific community’s “overwhelming view” is to move “slowly” and the country’s Opposition thinks it is a “fatalistic” move. Meanwhile the Chambers of Commerce say businesses will be “sighing with relief”. In New Zealand the Covid19 Minister dismissed the move as “not realistic” and one New Zealand would not be following.

They are all referring to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision, for better or worse, to lift most of Britain’s Covid19 restrictions from 19 July. This move, which Johnson seems determined to carry out, despite the criticisms at home and abroad, will change the Covid19 game forever. Already, countries like Singapore and Australia are looking to move in a similar direction. The solid consensus on the elimination of the virus is starting to break down, and, like Humpty Dumpty, will become impossible to put back together, no matter what future developments there may be.

Whatever one may think of the desirability or timing of the British move, it is going to be extremely difficult for the rest of the world to ignore, or not be impacted by it. Even isolated countries like New Zealand that are still pursuing an elimination strategy will be caught up in this, especially, if in our case, travel bubble partner and closest neighbour Australia follows the British lead, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison has strongly hinted is likely.

So, while New Zealand may continue for its own legitimate national safety reasons to adhere to the elimination strategy that has worked for us to date, we are, as Professor Michael Baker observed a couple of weeks ago, likely to become the “last man standing” in that regard. And the blunt reality is that as other countries abandon the elimination approach in favour of learning to live with the virus it is going to become increasingly difficult to live on the elimination limb.

For a start, as restrictions elsewhere are relaxed, and more and more people overseas become fully vaccinated, the expectation will grow that they will be able to travel more freely to countries like New Zealand, without facing the prospect when they arrive of enduring the near permanent quarantine system we seem to be developing. Not all these people will be casual tourists – many will be family members wanting to come home to re-unite with loved ones they have not seen for some time. But none are likely to take kindly to being treated as unwelcome intruders into a hermit kingdom.

This is not to suggest that New Zealand should immediately follow the British example and remove the restrictions we currently have in place. We cannot even contemplate doing so until we have achieved a much higher level of vaccination than is currently the case, nor should we. Rather, the point is that we cannot remain static in our response, especially as other countries start to move, and that our isolation notwithstanding, we will not be immune to their moves.

A small chink of optimism that New Zealand is beginning to understand that we are caught up in the changing international tides has emerged in comments this week from the Minister of Finance. Emerging from what he described as his post-Budget round of regional visits (curious of itself in that no Minister of Finance has ever spent nine weeks since a Budget touring the regions to promote it) Grant Robertson promised that the government’s blueprint for moving beyond the current situation would be released in the next few weeks.

Leaving aside the customary accompanying gloom of his message that a long period of restriction still lay ahead, the Minister’s statement did contain the encouraging recognition that we do need to move on over time towards what might become the new post Covid19 normal. The welcome aspect is that this is one of the first times a government spokesperson has spoken publicly of the next phase. In contrast, as recently as last week the Prime Minister was saying she had not even yet begun to turn her mind to that. So, the Minister’s admission that the government is thinking about a world beyond Covid19 has to be regarded in a positive light, even if the details are still at best limited and vague.

Britain’s moves make it clear, for better or worse, that we are moving to a new stage in the battle against Covid19. It is potentially the most difficult yet as the countries of the world start to seek ways of interconnecting after around 18 months of disruption – the biggest upheaval to international order since World War II. The new ways of interconnection will be at times be difficult and definitely uncertain. But they will also be inexorable, as more and more countries acknowledge, as Covid19 variants increase, the impracticality of complete elimination of the virus and accept the still unpleasant reality of learning to live as safely as possible with it.

While New Zealand is still standing reluctantly near the start of the pathway, Grant Robertson’s comments, made with all the enthusiasm of Shakespeare’s schoolboy, suggest that New Zealand is beginning to realise, albeit still mightily grudgingly, that at some point it will need to join that journey.

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