Week in Politics: Learning to live with the virus - or not

9:56 pm on 9 July 2021

Analysis - The government gives the first indication of what the Covid-19 future holds for us, a Labour MP breaks ranks with comments about China, the retirement age resurfaces and a second vaccine is approved.

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Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand was more likely to see incremental change than dramatic change in handling Covid-19. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We must learn to live with this virus." Those were British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's words when he announced all restrictions in England would be lifted on 19 July despite surging cases.

Australia is taking a similar but more cautious stance. "We need, as a nation, to move our focus from the suppression of the virus, ultimately, to living with the virus and preventing hospitalisation, fatalities and serious illness," said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg after Prime Minister Scott Morrison had announced a four-stage plan to end lockdowns and open the border.

Those far-reaching decisions by two governments opened a debate in New Zealand, and for the first time the government indicated what the future held for Kiwis.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said it wouldn't unfold the British way. "We are likely to see more incremental change than dramatic change."

He gave some clarity around that on Checkpoint. "I think towards the end of the year you will see some calculated changes," he said.

"You'll see us preparing for those changes… trialling of different things between now and the end of the year but we're doing it carefully."

He said one of the changes could see vaccinated people from low-risk countries visiting New Zealand without needing to go into quarantine. There would, however, be a need for verification of vaccination and there was no settled way to do that internationally.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, questioned at her post-cabinet press conference on Monday, said her priority was to "continue to preserve what New Zealand has managed to gain".

Opposition leader Judith Collins told Stuff she agreed with Hipkins' dismissal of the British plan. "New Zealanders are generally in a different mindset and tend not to want to accept any Covid in the community at all," she said.

"I am not going to tell people to get used to Covid. Ultimately this stuff has serious effects on our lungs."

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said her priority was to "continue to preserve what New Zealand has managed to gain". Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The British and Australian positions largely depend on vaccinating their populations, and that too was an issue here this week.

The arrival of 150,000 Pfizer doses - two days early - was a great relief for the government. Hipkins said a delivery was expected every Tuesday for the rest of the month.

The minister, and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, talked confidently about the programme ramping up, saying half a million people had been given their second shot and a total 1.27 million had been administered.

But New Zealand, and Australia, remain far behind other developed countries. Hipkins has said supply constraint is the issue.

National has been asking how the country could have gone from being at the front of the queue for vaccines (Hipkins' comment last year) to around the bottom. Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop asked whether incentive payments had been considered. Hipkins said that wouldn't be ethical.

Richard Prebble thinks he knows why New Zealand is behind. Writing in the New Zealand Herald and quoting The British Medical Journal he said Pfizer required a premium for early delivery.

Israel paid it and all its citizens had been offered the vaccine. Our government didn't, and 85 per cent were unprotected, Prebble said.

He also quoted from Professor Robert MacCulloch's blog "Down to Earth Kiwi" which estimated the premium would have cost the government an extra $40 million.

"The government is innumerate," Prebble said. "They are willing to spend $685 million on a harbour cycleway with negative cost/benefit but not $40 million for an early vaccine rollout to save billions of dollars and possibly many lives."

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Labour MP Louisa Wall. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Labour MP Louisa Wall caused a minor flurry this week when RNZ reported her comments about organ harvesting in China.

Wall, along with National's Simon O'Connor, is one of two New Zealand MPs in the International Parliamentary Alliance on China, set up to monitor the actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"Forced organ harvesting is occurring to service a global market where people are wanting hearts, lungs, eyes, skin," she said.

Wall was taking part in RNZ's Red Line podcast. Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta have refused to be interviewed.

The government is very careful about what it says about China, and Wall's remarks were seen as her having broken ranks.

Ardern distanced herself from them, saying the MP had not been speaking as a member of government.

The Herald thought it was sufficiently important to publish an editorial, headed 'Right words, wrong place to say them'.

It said there were diplomatic lines specifically devised for concerns such as Wall had aired, and there were good reasons for that.

"How would such reciprocal statements be met if, for instance, a low-ranked CCP member decided to issue criticisms of New Zealand for its world's worst youth suicide rates, or the gruelling testimonies at our Royal Inquiry into Abuse in Care?" it asked.

The editorial said Wall should have gone to the minister responsible and sought clearance to issue a statement.

A draft Treasury document released this week warned that debt could reach "unsustainable" levels and a contributor to that would be larger numbers of people reaching retirement age.

That caused the retirement age to re-emerge as a political issue. Ardern stuck to her position that her government would not raise the age above 65. "I do think people want certainty, people will save with an expectation of when they will retire," she said.

Collins said the country should at least talk about raising the age of superannuation to address a predicted wave of debt. Her party did not have a specific plan for raising the age.

Former prime minister John Key pledged it would not be raised under his watch, but when Bill English took over from him he put it back on the agenda. It didn't go anywhere because National lost the next election.

Medsafe approved the Janssen vaccine, opening up options for the government. Hipkins said cabinet would next month decide whether to use it but the intention was to continue with the Pfizer vaccine.

Janssen is a single shot vaccine and the government secured two million doses through a purchase agreement. Hipkins said it could be useful in an emergency such as a serious outbreak when a large number of people needed to be vaccinated quickly in a specific area.

Other political news this week

The Herald reported a UMR poll showing National down to 24 percent support and ACT's David Seymour more popular as preferred prime minister than Collins. Seymour was on 12 percent and Collins 10 percent. Labour was on 48 percent and Ardern 55 percent. Stuff said it had confirmed the figures. The poll isn't public, and UMR is Labour's pollster. This poll wasn't done for the party. Collins brushed it off, saying it had been leaked to divert attention from government failures.

A Hawke's Bay hotel that earned $1.5m in nine months for providing emergency accommodation has given it up because it was "too much hassle," the Herald reported. A spokesperson for Nautilus Napier said there had been disruptions and damage to rooms. National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston said the top two Napier emergency accommodation providers - Nautilus was one of them - earned a combined $4.3m in the nine months to March 2021.

Parliament's education select committee decided to hold an inquiry into truancy. Official figures in May showed more than 60,000 students were classified as chronically absent, missing at least three days of school every fortnight, and almost 40 percent were not going to school regularly. National's education spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said he was pleased the committee had agreed to hold the inquiry. The situation was getting worse. "It's a real problem in this country."

ACT said it had obtained figures from Transport Minister Michael Wood showing as many as 107,400 motorists would be hit with charges of up to $5175 next year under the government's scheme to encourage drivers to switch to electric vehicles and hybrids, Stuff reported. The scheme charges fees on imported cars which are used to subsidise discounts for electric vehicles. ACT described it as a tax grab.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.