Politics and the pandemic - another year of Covid-19

3:49 pm on 5 January 2022

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in January that 2021 would be the year of the vaccine it didn't seem to raise much interest.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives to speak at the Auckland Zoo on December 01, 2021 in Auckland,  The government has announced a new support package to help revive economic, social and cultural activities

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives at Auckland Zoo on 1 December to announce a support package for Auckland, hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic last year. Photo: 2021 Getty Images

Kiwis were enjoying a complacent summer, there hadn't been a community case since November.

It was all going to change, in ways she could not have foreseen.

As RNZ's timeline shows, the first community case of the year was detected on 24 January, a woman who had travelled extensively in Northland.

That was followed by outbreaks in Auckland, clusters which were vigorously traced, ring-fenced and isolated.

Auckland was put into a level 3 lockdown, and then in March went down to level 2. The outbreaks were serious enough for Australia to suspend quarantine-free entry for New Zealanders.

Despite this, the first full year of Labour's majority government began well. The elimination strategy was working, the team of five million understood it and most of them supported it.

Managed isolation facilities were taking in infected travellers, nearly all of them returning citizens or residents.

Supplies of the Pfizer vaccine, reported internationally to be one of the most effective against Covid-19, had been secured although delivery was going to be spread across the coming months.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said mass vaccinations should start mid-year.

Frontline workers and older people were vaccinated first but opposition parties began criticising the slow rollout for the general population.

Ardern and her ministers insisted there was no great rush, the country was learning from others and, unlike others, was not ravaged by the virus so did not need the vaccine as badly.

In April the quarantine-free bubble with Australia opened but it was paused the following month because of outbreaks across the Tasman. It popped in July, and was never reinflated.

Mass vaccinations began in late July but the take up was slow and opposition pressure mounted. There was still did not seem to be any sense of alarm in the community.

There was relentless criticism of the way the Maori rollout was being handled. They were lagging behind the rest of the population.

In her end-of-year interview with RNZ Ardern accepted the government could have done more to assist community-led vaccination efforts but defended the decision not to prioritise all younger Māori.

In August everything changed. The first case of the Delta variant arrived in the community, linked to a returnee from Australia. Somehow, it had escaped from the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility.

The Crowne Plaza MIQ facility in Auckland.

Photo: RNZ

Ardern ordered a level 4 lockdown for Auckland and the Coromandel lasting four days, and three days for the rest of the country.

It didn't contain Delta, something no other country had been able to achieve, and cases spread in Auckland and to other centres.

Complacency had now been completely dispelled and there were queues at testing stations and vaccination centres.

Parliament was suspended as the vaccination rollout came under even more intense scrutiny.

National suspected the government had been slow to order the vaccine, something Hipkins denied, but there was no denying other developed countries had started much earlier.

The elimination strategy was becoming untenable, it wasn't working because Delta was too easily transmitted.

The government was reluctant to give it up. The strategy had delivered a huge election victory, but it didn't have a choice.

In subtle ways, the messaging began to change. "Zero tolerance doesn't mean zero cases" was creeping in, and in October, Ardern changed the game: "It's clear that long periods of heavy restriction has not got us to zero cases," she said.

There was still no admission that elimination had been scrapped.

Judith Collins, then National's leader, called on Ardern to "tell the truth ... the elimination strategy is clearly dead".

The government then began introducing steps within the alert levels, trying to relieve the pressure on Auckland which by then had been in various states of lockdown for months.

There were reports of confusion, the rules weren't clearly understood.

On 22 October the government revealed what was going to replace it - although it still said the aim would be to stamp out the virus where it appeared in small clusters.

The traffic light system was explained to the country. Lockdowns would be replaced by red, orange and green settings with red the most restrictive.

It would start when all the 20 DHBs had reached 90 percent full vaccination rates, a highly ambitious target. Ardern and Hipkins were careful to say the decision on when to switch the traffic lights on would be a "pragmatic" one.

That turned out to mean before all the DHBs had reached the target, most were still some way off.

The Auckland business sector was putting huge pressure on the government to end lockdowns and give it some certainty about the future.

A quiet Queen Street in central Auckland on Friday 13/11/20.

An almost deserted Queen Street during Auckland's last lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

It did that on 29 November, announcing the new system would start on 3 December. Auckland and several regions with low vaccination rates would start at red, the rest of the country at orange.

Two weeks later it was announced Auckland and the other red regions, with the exception of Northland, would move to orange on 31 December, just in time for New Year. Businesses fumed over the delay but it appeared to be generally well received.

Cases of the Delta variant had increased to daily numbers which would once have caused immediate lockdowns, but were now barely noticed. Hospitalisation rates were steady and only a handful of people were in ICU.

Around mid-December Auckland cases began to decline - the vaccine was working and the city had rates above 90 percent.

Ardern told RNZ: "It was the year of the vaccine and to finish with rates in the mid-90 percent mark for first dose, 85 percent for Maori, over 90 percent for Pacific, I'm really proud of what New Zealand's doing."

She was right to be proud, what had been achieved during the year had been remarkable. In her last speech in Parliament before the adjournment Ardern said New Zealand had been through two years of Covid-19 and 44 people had died - minuscule when compared internationally.

Voters, however, were not showing their appreciation. The change from elimination to living with the virus hurt the government although it's unlikely it could ever have sustained, under any circumstances, the levels of the last election.

Polls showed Labour's support trending down and its ratings for the way it was responding to Covid-19 also changed, with fewer approving and more disapproving.

They showed Labour was unlikely to again win an election on its own, but could still form a government with the Greens.

The year ended in a vastly different way to its beginning. Omicron, the scary new variant reported to spread even more quickly and easily than Delta, turned up in MIQ.

It was ravaging other countries and around the world new restrictions were being imposed.

In his last briefing before Christmas, Hipkins announced sweeping changes to the response, tightening up MIQ and bringing forward booster shots to four months after the second dose from the original six months.

The government also pushed back quarantine-free entry for returning New Zealanders to the end of February, causing an immediate outcry from those who had confidently believed they would be able to come home on 17 January without having to secure a slot in MIQ.

Hipkins also announced children would start being vaccinated on 17 January, before school started.

The measures, he explained, were designed to keep Omicron in MIQ - there were 22 cases at the time - and buy time while more was found out about the new strain.

He gave an assurance that if it did break out lockdowns would be the last resort. The first response would be to put regions where it had appeared into the red setting.

Chris Hipkins

Chris Hipkins Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Throughout the year Covid-19 was a massive distraction. Because of that, radical initiatives announced by the government came under far less scrutiny than would otherwise have happened.

It announced that DHBs would be replaced by a single national health authority, a huge undertaking. Of no less enormity was Three Waters, the plan to take control of water infrastructure held by councils and put it under four entities.

Some councils were appalled by Three Waters - they were initially told participation would be voluntary but that changed to having no choice.

The May budget came and went. It was the first written by a Labour majority government under MMP, and it showed. Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the benefit increases in it were the biggest in a generation and he was "righting the wrongs" of former finance minister Ruth Richardson's Mother of all Budgets.

National and ACT said there was nothing in it for people who earned money.

While Labour suffered from the political impact of the pandemic and ended the year less popular than when it started, National was the opposite although it was coming off a low base.

Judith Collins, who had overseen an awful election result, was erratic and unpredictable. The media seethed with rumours of a leadership coup and former leader Simon Bridges was touted as the one to stage it - something he denied.

Collins, however, was clearly in trouble and in November made what Stuff chose as the worst political mistake of the year.

Her demotion of Bridges because of something he had said five years previously was the last straw for the caucus and there was a vote of no confidence in the leader.

During a week of intense lobbying Christopher Luxon, a first term rookie, emerged with a consensus to replace Collins, and Nicola Willis was chosen as his deputy.

Luxon moved quickly to put his front bench together, giving Bridges the finance portfolio and ranking him number three.

A very successful business leader before entering politics, Luxon said all the right things during two weeks of saturation media coverage.

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New National leader Chris Luxon Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In mid-December, a Taxpayers' Union poll conducted by Curia showed National jumping up 6.4 points to 32.6 percent support, with Luxon's rating as preferred prime minister coming in at 20.4 percent - reported to be the highest for any opposition leader since Sir John Key.

National's gain came at ACT's expense. Its popularity, which had soared during National's traumatic times, was down 5.3 points to 10.6 percent.

Labour showed a very slight gain to 39.5 percent, a long way from the heady pre-election highs but strong enough to govern with the Greens who gained 2.3 points to 10.9 percent.

And Ardern was way ahead of Luxon on 39.1 percent as preferred prime minister.

Despite the bad news that came at the end, ACT had a good year with leader David Seymour often dominating question time in Parliament. There were no loose cannons in his well-behaved 10-member caucus - he was by himself before the election - although none were given much chance to show themselves.

The Māori Party's two MPs, co-leaders Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi also made their marks in Parliament and backed the vaccination drive.

Most of the news about the Greens came from Climate Change Minister and co-leader James Shaw's trip to Glasgow for the international climate conference, and late in the year the party's other co-leader, Marama Davidson, launched a new programme to curb domestic and sexual violence.

For insights into how they saw 2021, read RNZ's Focus on Politics: An end-of-year chat with the minor party leaders.

*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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