Analysis - After a summer spent enjoying the waves at beaches up and down the country, New Zealanders face a new wave crashing on our shores. The Omicron wave. We've seen the swell coming for weeks now and it's almost upon us.
But that fact we can face this Omicron wave with some level of confidence - and having enjoyed those summer beach waves - are in large part due to New Zealand's now tried and true Covid strategy: Buy time.
From the time we heard the name of this latest variant in November 2021 and saw its rapid rate of spread (about 70 times the rate of Delta), we've also heard the calls to not bother with restrictions, open the borders and switch tactics.
Mostly from the same people who have made those calls at every other stage of our Covid response. 'This is different', they said. We can't keep Covid out. Jacinda Ardern is acting like a modern-day King Canute, trying to stop the Omicron wave. Let's take our head out of the sand, get rid of MIQ, learn from the rest of the world. And so on. You've heard it all.
But almost just as quickly we learnt that the best shield against Omicron was a booster shot; a third dose of a vaccine. So the government closed borders again and delayed MIQ changes. To buy time.
It's been the essence of our strategy for the nigh-on two years since our first case of Covid-19, yet critics and commentators seem so quick to forget it. Closing the borders and the first lockdown were to buy time to understand the virus and stop exponential growth. Then we bought time to stop further cases entering the country; then time to get access to a vaccine and roll it out nationwide as Delta struck.
Each variant has changed the game, but each time the government has chosen the same response. Buy time. It has frustrated some, but given the Prime Minister's cautious nature is entirely in line with this government's mojo. It's cost jobs and businesses, but saved many more. And most of all it's saved thousands and thousands of lives. It's worked pretty dang well.
This summer, vaccinated New Zealanders in New Zealand were given pretty much free rein, while time was bought for the booster programme and to get 5-11 year-olds the chance to vaccinate before going back to schools. It was never some 'eliminate' denial v 'live with it' and die battle, but a question of whether we could buy time to try to fight the virus a little more on our terms. It was about timing.
Thanks to this strategy we now have 1.9 million people boosted, with 100,000 of those getting it this past weekend. And 214,000 children aged 5 to 11 have had a dose. Winter is still a few months away.
Those details matter because it means our health system is now less likely to be overwhelmed by this milder, but pacier variant (that's currently still killing tens of thousands of people worldwide each week, let's not forget). Those who said there was no way to stop Omicron and we should 'let it rip' before Christmas might consider how much better off we are as the wave is about to break now, than we were 10 weeks ago. If boosters are like sand bags against an incoming wave… you get my drift. The timing is pretty dang good.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that each time we've made the right decision to buy more time, we've made it late and with insufficient planning in place. The strategy has served us well, but the execution much less so.
When the Prime Minister spoke to the nation for the first time this year on 20 January, she repeated stressed that 'every day counts' and it was urgent to prepare for Omicron, before going on to tell us that over the summer the government and its agencies had done... sod all.
One example: A new testing regime and the introduction of rapid antigen testing was announced, not with the information that the test were in the country and ready to go, but that they were on order, and in insufficient quantities.
Government hesitancy or poor management have been as consistent as the 'buy time' tactic. The initial lockdown was a week or two late, the testing at the border got into gear weeks after it was meant to, security at MIQs was only sorted after a number of escapes, more ICU beds were only announced 22 months into the pandemic, and - crucially - the move to order the vaccine and roll out a programme was slow, for all its eventual effectiveness. And we're paying the price for that slowness now, cutting the gap between second and third doses and less widely boosted than we could have been.
The urgent language Ardern has used since 20 January was also needed before Christmas and over summer. National's Covid-19 Response spokesman Chris Bishop on 30 December issued a statement headed "Govt must act on boosters, kids vaccines and rapid tests".
You'll remember even people who'd had a second dose more than four months earlier weren't allowed to get a booster. He begged for the children's rollout to be brought forward and for more rapid antigen tests to be brought into the country.
How much better off we'd be if the government had been acting on those in 2021. As he rather pointedly said on 10 January: "The government might have logged off for summer but Covid doesn't care about Christmas ".
Time and again we've done the right thing, but late and lackadaisically. And time and again we've got lucky. Or, the rightness of the decision has bought us the time to play catch-up. That, for me, has been the defining story of our Covid response and our consistent 'buy time' tactics.
But now we face a new phase for New Zealand. Covid-19 has begun entering the community at a level we've never seen before. I give thanks to all that is holy that we have bought time and we are facing this now - informed, vaccinated, prepared, up against a less deadly variant - and not at any other time over the past two years, like so much of the rest of the world.
All we have been through is so that now, as the wave hits, so many fewer of us will be washed away. For that reason alone (though there are many others, both in health and economic terms) we can be rightly proud of our Covid strategy thus far.
Critics have repeatedly - for the best part of two years - insisted that the government's tactics have run their course and it needs to change. And they're repeatedly been shown up. But now we truly are at the end of the 'buy time' era. We've bought all the time we could and the wave is upon us. Two years in and the government will need to pivot and take a new approach. Let's hope their decision-making is as sound, but their execution improves. Because the thing about waves is that they keep on coming.
- This article was originally published in Pundit.
*Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the Podcast team at RNZ.