The Week in Politics: Unfriendly fire and plaudits as govt changes tack on Covid-19

3:27 pm on 25 March 2022

Analysis: The Prime Minister announces a significant easing of Covid-19 restrictions but she doesn't please everyone, New Zealand offers non-lethal military aid to Ukraine and an international analyst explains why it's "highly symbolic".

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Clockwise from top left, Jacinda Ardern, Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Golriz Ghahraman. Photo: RNZ / Pool

As well, after nine years Australia accepts New Zealand's offer to take refugees from its offshore detention camps.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday announced more freedom from Covid-19 restrictions but not everyone was happy about it.

It was two years to the day since she ordered the first lockdown and closed the borders.

"While we've been successful, it's been bloody hard," she said. "We're not tired for nothing: the sacrifices and hard work have brought us here today and now, with more tools and one of the most highly vaccinated populations in the world, we are able to keep moving forward safely."

The details of the changes are explained in RNZ's website article 'What you need to know: key changes for scanning, vaccine passes and mandates'.

The safety measures are being removed because there's so much Omicron on the loose that there's no point keeping them.

Ardern put it this way: "To date we've had more than 500,000 reported cases of Covid-19 and expert modellers say there have probably been 1.7 million actual infections.

"That figure, coupled with 95 percent of New Zealanders being fully vaccinated, means we now have a high level of collective immunity."

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A positive rapid antigen test. Photo:

The next important date is 4 April, when the traffic light settings will be reviewed. Ardern said the country would be able to move to orange "at some point in the near future" but not while hospitalisation rates stayed as high as they are now.

Opposition parties have often complained that the system is confusing, and Ardern gave her own simple explanation. "Gathering limits at red, masks at orange, and guidance at green."

It has been a hard two years and for Ardern the last few months have been the worst. Imposing vaccine passes and mandates splintered her "team of five million" and a protest at Parliament ended in a riot.

The prime minister was "trying to turn the page on a vile six months" said Herald political editor Claire Trevett. "We initially had to live with mandates and vaccine passes and gathering limits so we didn't have to live with Covid-19. There is little point in living with all of them together."

Cost of living 'scarier than Omicron'

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass said much of the government's job for the last two years was coming to an end and the future would be different.

"Politics won't be literally about 'going hard and going early'. It will be about the normal workaday issues… the economic situation is now overtaking the virus," he said.

"Inflation will be peeking into wallets every week. ASB's $150 per week prediction will be scarier to a lot of voters than Omicron."

Malpass was referring to ASB economist Mark Smith's prediction that households would spend an extra $150 per week, on average, this year because of rising costs.

Smith said cost increases were escalating and becoming increasingly widespread. In aggregate, household costs were expected to increase 7 percent this year, or $15 billion, Stuff reported.

During her speech in the Beehive theatrette Ardern used slides showing how cases were falling in Auckland and levelling off in other North Island regions. The South Island isn't there yet but the trends were strong enough overall for her to make the call.

The sports sector celebrated the removal of outdoor gathering limits, the hospitality sector didn't think that doubling the limit to 200 in restaurants and bars went far enough because they still have to use social distancing, and vulnerable people voiced fears that they would be more at risk.

Blues fans celebrate

Crowds are on the way back at Super Rugby matches. Photo: Photosport

Plenty of criticism

Political reaction was summed up by RNZ this way: "National would have gone further in removing Covid-19 restrictions but backs the government. The Greens fear for the most vulnerable, and ACT fears for the economy."

National's leader Christopher Luxon said his party supported the removal of restrictions but he didn't see the point of retaining the traffic light system.

"It's difficult to understand the justification for why the traffic light system remains," he said.

"Our view is that some simple, clean instructions around masking, around maybe crowd limits and those sorts of things. We can manage that with simpler sets of rules rather than a confusing traffic lights system."

The Green Party's Golriz Ghahraman, who has multiple sclerosis and is immunocompromised, said mandates and passes had been about inclusion.

"It meant we could leave the house, we could go to work, we could go to school, so it was about inclusion," she said.

"And now we are in a position where we have to decide whether we want to go out into those spaces at quite a high risk, which feels exclusionary."

Act leader David Seymour, who has been more forceful than National about removing restrictions, predicted the economy would be in recession in the first two quarters of the year and characterised the government's decisions as an attempt to save face.

"Our economy is heading for recession and the prime minister just keeps fiddling," he said.

"What we needed was a sea change - it's time to move on and dump restrictions that don't make sense. Instead, the restrictions are being strung out in a political theatre of the absurd."

Michael Baker, the most widely quoted epidemiologist throughout the pandemic, said the day before Ardern's announcement that winding back restrictions could cause a second Omicron wave.

"Cases are going up in some parts of the country, hospitalisations are at a record high, it's a bit early to risk adding more fuel to the fire," he said.

The day after the announcement science commentator Siouxie Wiles told Nine to Noon she was immensely disappointed.

"There's a huge emphasis on 'it's safe to do things' but who is it safe for?" she said.

"Removing QR scanning and passports makes it less safe for some people. We're now saying 'it's OK for most people'."

More support for Ukraine is significant - commentator

On Monday Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced aid for Ukraine - $5 million, bringing the total to $11m, and non-lethal military equipment.

- POOL - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the post-Cabinet press conference with Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta, Parliament, Wellington. 07 March, 2022.  NZ Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta at a media briefing. Photo: Pool / NZME

Chief of Defence Air Marshal Kevin Short was at the post-Cabinet press conference and said the equipment included 1066 body armour plates, 473 helmets and 571 camouflage vests.

The equipment would have become surplus as the NZDF moves to lighter gear, he said.

International analyst Geoffrey Miller, in an article written for the Democracy Project and published by RNZ, said it was highly symbolic and explained why.

Miller said there were several reasons for the decision, including public sentiment, the wave of global solidarity with Ukraine, the attitude of New Zealand's "Five Eyes" partners and National's call for more to be done.

"But the EU's views of New Zealand's efforts are perhaps even more crucial," he said.

"New Zealand is in the final stages of negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU, which will require the agreement of all 27 member states for sign-off."

Miller said Nina Obermaier, the EU's ambassador to New Zealand, had last week told Parliament's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee that it was very important to know that New Zealand was "on our side in this conflict and this is also why we welcomed New Zealand's very clear and early condemnation of the Russian invasions".

An MP on the committee asked her about the extent to which New Zealand's support could accelerate the signing of the free trade deal.

The EU ambassador responded: "I am certain that the current situation is very much on everybody's minds and that definitely will have an impact on how quickly we can conclude."

Miller said in his article that staying in the EU's good books was important, but even more important was doing the right thing.

"Ukraine's nightmare continues and this will not be the last time that Jacinda Ardern is asked to do more," he said.

Key proposal finally comes to fruition

It was nine years ago that the then prime minister, John Key, told his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard that New Zealand was prepared to accept refugees from Australia's offshore detention camps.

The offer was continued by his successors Bill English and Jacinda Ardern, and this week its acceptance was announced.

The deal is for 150 refugees a year for three years.

They're people who arrived in Australia illegally by boat, and under Australian policy they're not allowed to stay in the country. It detains them in camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea and on the Australian mainland.

New Zealand's offer had not been taken up because of concerns that they would become citizens and then be able to get into Australia through the back door.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said those who came to New Zealand would go through the same UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) process as other incoming refugees, which meant they would undergo assessment and screening.

Faafoi told Checkpoint the deal was signed off a month ago.

"The bottom line was it had to go through the UNHCR process and Australia had to go through some discussions with the UNHCR to see who might be eligible," he said.

*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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