Max Rashbrooke, Guardian, 24 August 2021
Some British media have been mocking New Zealand for going into Covid lockdown over one case, but it’s hard to find downsides to the approach
Physician, heal thyself. This phrase has been in my thoughts ever since global media outlets, most of them British, started mocking New Zealand’s Covid elimination strategy last week.
I’m a proud British passport holder, and spent some of my best years in London, but not once during this pandemic have I ever wished to be anywhere except New Zealand. That holds true even though we’re now back in lockdown while the British freely enjoy what passes for a summer there.
As Twitter users were quick to point out, it was indeed crazy of New Zealand to go into lockdown with just one case – no wait, 22 – hang on, 107 … You get the point. The fact that coronavirus case numbers can mount rapidly should be obvious by now, but apparently not.
Also apparently, some British columnists believe New Zealand has become “a mysterious socialist hermit kingdom”. But we’ve led infinitely freer lives over the past 18 months. On the Oxford Covid-19 Stringency Index, they’ve had – crudely speaking – 60% restricted lives for most of that time, while we have seldom been over 20%. We have lockdowns, but they’re generally short and sharp.
The lockdowns are also effective: we’ve had just 26 people die of Covid, a number which – and I cannot stress this enough – is very different from more than 130,000, the current UK death tally. Our per-person death rate is 400 times less than the British one. And if any British people think that’s down to New Zealand’s being an island, they might want to take a look at the shape of their own country on a map. Luck, and living on the bottom of the world, have also helped us, but not that much.
It’s hard to think of any downsides to our approach. Lockdowns are not great for one’s mental health, admittedly, but also probably not as bad as having to watch “the bodies pile high”.
Our compassionate response has also been an efficient one: New Zealand’s economy recovered more quickly than Britain’s did, while our unemployment rate, at 4%, is so low that firms trying to recruit staff are contemplating desperate measures like actually raising wages.
Yes, we can be sleepy little hobbits, less protective of our civil liberties than the British. But when infringements are proportionate to the harm they seek to prevent, and governments act competently, citizens are right to be trusting. And it’s not as if no one dares criticise Jacinda Ardern.
In short, our coronavirus response has been that rarest of things, a win-win-win situation. In the “slightly magical animal” stakes, we can boast not just hobbits but also unicorns.
As to the “hermit” line: it’s not like we want to be isolated. We organised a trans-Tasman travel bubble with Australia as soon as it looked safe, only for the Aussies to mess everything up. If we don’t have one any more it’s not for lack of effort on our part.
Of course our government has made mistakes. Managed isolation bookings are chaotic, intensive care beds inadequate, testing systems far from perfect. Most notoriously, our vaccine rollout is the developed world’s slowest.
But we could afford some slowness because of our previous victories. What’s more, the continuing deaths and resurgent infections in vaccine “success stories” such as Israel, the US and the UK suggest there are few role models out there, unless one is willing to tolerate a body count of hundreds of people a day, tens of thousands a year. New Zealanders would be more excited about “learning to live” with Covid if it didn’t look so much like learning to die with it. We would also probably prefer not to open up to Covid with a very partially vaccinated population, a delightfully British approach that appears perfectly designed to create the next Delta variant.
Given Delta’s exceptional infection rates, of course, our latest lockdown may not work. We have no monopoly on perfection, no crystal ball. But for the moment it looks like the right strategy.
And of course we need an exit plan, just like everyone else, and we may eventually have to accept a few coronavirus deaths a year. But that exit plan, and the opening of our borders, will seem feasible only once global vaccination rates are sky-high and the rest of the world is a safe place for travel.
That, in turn, does not look likely to occur before the end of this year, by which point New Zealand will be in the same situation as everyone else – that is, having got the vaccine to anyone who wants it before commencing a desperate battle with the anti-vaxxers.
I’m genuinely delighted that the UK has nailed its vaccine rollout, helping protect my many British friends and family members. But rather than mock others, Britons would do well to contemplate their own past – and continuing – problems with a pandemic that is sorely testing us all.
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