17 Sep 2021

The Week in Politics: Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate

5:24 pm on 17 September 2021

Analysis - The government makes a big push to get as many people as possible vaccinated before there's another outbreak, the polls are bleak for Judith Collins as she has another bad week and MIQ bookings are set to re-open.

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Photo: RNZ

It seemed this week as though a race had started to get as many people as possible vaccinated before the next outbreak, and that's probably how the government sees it.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, hammered the message home during daily briefings as a fleet of buses began touring around Auckland seeking out people in low-uptake areas.

With no shortage of vaccine and more sites opening, people were being urged to drop in whenever they could, bring their bookings forward and bring their whānau with them.

With Auckland expected to move to level 3 next week, the government doesn't want another hard lockdown if there's a fresh outbreak. The only way it can move into that space is if a significant majority of the population has been vaccinated.

There were indications of an imminent strategy shift away from elimination, but not until those vaccination figures are high enough to justify it.

"The broad political and public consensus on eliminating Covid-19 has shown signs of wavering this week as Auckland stares down its longest-ever stretch of hard lockdown," RNZ reported as it published statements from 10 experts and leaders.

Politik reported the debate was starting to swing to a post-lockdown world. "With Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins now openly talking about post-elimination strategy, he is getting the country ready to have to learn to live with Covid," it said.

The prime minister did not seem so ready, the report said. "What is unclear is whether the reluctance is tactical, designed to encourage people to get vaccinated, or reflects her natural reluctance to countenance risk."

Under questioning at press conferences this week, the prime minister said current strategy was focused on elimination "to allow us to make sure that we're safely vaccinating our population".

Her next words were: "We will listen to the experts, as we have all the way through, and their advice on what the phase that we'll move into thereafter looks like. But for now the strategy is vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate."

That begged the question - what percentage of the eligible population (those aged 12 and over) have to be vaccinated before there's a move into the "thereafter".

The government has refused to set a precise target in the past and wouldn't this week, but it's going to be high.

Health Minister Andrew Little was quoted in the Herald as saying the government wanted to do better than 80 percent, which some other countries have achieved, and reach a target "right up into the 90s".

The report also quoted University of Canterbury modeller Professor Michael Plank, one of the researchers working with the Ministry of Health on how quickly Covid-19 could spread once borders open and restrictions are lifted.

"The modelling shows that if vaccinations are in the 70s or low 80s in the eligible population, a large scale outbreak could still threaten our health service capacity and lead to tens of thousands of hospitalisations and thousands of deaths," he said.

"If we can get into the 90s, the threat will be much smaller and could be limited to a more manageable number of hospitalisations with some additional public health measures."

Given the highly cautionary approach taken so far by the prime minister and Bloomfield, it seems unlikely we're going to have to start to learn to live with Covid until more than 90 percent of us are vaccinated.

How are we doing? Friday morning's figures from the ministry were: 36 percent fully vaccinated, 71 percent have had their first does, and 78 percent are booked in or have been vaccinated with at least one dose.

As the pandemic played out in the media, National Party leader Judith Collins was embroiled in the mightily unimportant matter of what she had said about Siouxsie Wiles. It was "big fat hypocrite".

Collins was commenting on Wiles having been seen on an Auckland beach with a friend who went swimming, which breached lockdown rules.

This caused a fuss, forcing Collins to deny she had been fat-shaming Wiles. She likened her remark to "big fat lie", or big fat anything, the way Kiwis use the idiom to describe something extreme.

Collins told Newstalk ZB she had her own weight problem and would be the last person to fat-shame someone.

Be that as it may, the incident was seen as another example of the way Collins gets trapped into irrelevance.

Then there were scathing comments from her former press secretary Janet Wilson in a podcast for The Spinoff and two bad polls.

Wilson claimed Collins presided over a culture of fear within her caucus and was prone to "paranoid storms", Stuff reported. "She demands complete loyalty and focus from her caucus, which is what any leader would do," Wilson said. "And then she, herself personally, doesn't display that same focus on what the real issues are."

Collins told Stuff Wilson was being unprofessional after being "generously" employed and her comments were "a very odd thing to say".

She said Wilson had been employed by Todd Muller during his short-lived leadership and when she replaced him it had been too late in the election campaign to replace the chief press secretary.

"You're talking about someone who was with us for a matter of months, brought on by someone else who was desperate to get someone to be the chief press secretary because he had lost (staff) with the coup that he had been part of," Collins said.

"I'm not going to speak to Janet Wilson - she'd never worked here before, she wasn't used to Parliament. It's a very, very hard environment."

The two polls came out on the same day.

The one by Curia, which is National's pollster, was commissioned by the Taxpayers' Union and was carried out between 5 September and 9 September. It showed Labour on 48.5 percent, National on 21.3 percent and ACT on 14.9 percent.

The second was a leaked poll by UMR, Labour's pollster although this survey wasn't done for the party. It was taken earlier, between 31 August and 6 September. It showed Labour on 45 percent, National on 26 percent and ACT on 13 percent.

These events generated some horrible headlines for National.

Stuff: Latest poll has Nats' support floundering at 21pc

Herald: 'Paranoid storms': Judith Collins leading Nats to oblivion - ex press secretary

Stuff political columnist Ben Thomas: End is nigh as Collins stumbles once too often.

Herald: Poll crash for National could spell catastrophe for Judith Collins.

Newshub: A National Party leadership challenge is stirring and may not be far away.

Claire Trevett, the Herald's political editor, said Parliament was due to return next week and Collins might be praying the lockdown kept her MPs locked up in Auckland for a fair bit longer. "They simply cannot brush off a poll from their own pollsters," she said.

Newshub reported: "The phones are ringing within the National Party caucus - a leadership challenge is stirring and could come as soon as October. Judith Collins' MPs aren't happy with her performance and a poll by the National Party's own pollster appears to have sealed her fate."

Other political news this week included:

The government announced the pause in bookings for MIQ slots would end on Monday when a new system would be launched. Instead of the old first-come, first-served arrangement which caused so much angst, there would be a lobby which people wanting places could enter. There would be random selections and the first lobby would give out 3000 places. After that around 4000 a fortnight would be opened up.

National's Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said the new system was better than the old one but it was still "a band aid on the festering wound".

Bishop said it still meant a nurse, teacher or construction worker desperately needed here was treated the same as someone who just wanted to go on holiday.

National favours a points system, similar to the way immigrants are chosen. Hipkins has said that would be too complicated and would take too long.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw announced there would be afive month extension on the deadline for the government to publish its Emissions Reduction Plan. The plan will set out how New Zealand will meet its climate change targets.

It was due by the end of the year but Shaw said it would now be released in May, in line with the 2022 Budget, to give key organisations and communities time to get through the worst of the Covid-19 outbreak.

"It is only right to make sure everyone has the chance to contribute without the additional challenge of keeping people safe."

Shaw wasn't happy when he said that. "I'm gutted. I didn't want to do it," he told Morning Report.

Ardern reacted to the new defence pact announced on Thursday by the US, UK and Australia. US President Joe Biden said it would deepen and formalise co-operation between the three nations "because we all recognise the importance of ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific over the long term".

Australia will be the main beneficiary through the sharing of the latest technology and a nuclear-powered submarine fleet in the coming years, according to reports.

Ardern said she discussed the pact with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday. New Zealand had not been invited to join it.

There would be "absolutely no change" in New Zealand's relationship with the three nations or the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership.

Ardern said the government's policy that nuclear-powered vessels could not enter New Zealand waters would not change.

The pact, known as AUKUS, is seen as a response to China's growing power and influence in the region.

*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.

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