Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Matthew Hooton: Jacinda Ardern rolls the dice on level 3


Today’s decision to move Auckland to level 3 on Wednesday morning signals the end of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s 18-month-old elimination strategy as we have known it. From here, everything is about vaccination.

Ardern’s roll of the dice means any Aucklander aged 12 or older who has not had their first vaccine dose must get it tomorrow. There is no longer any excuse for delay, with local health authorities now providing as many as 17 walk-in or drive-through centres throughout the region.

There is no reason we shouldn’t all be fully vaccinated by the end of November. We need at least 90 per cent of us fully vaccinated so that we can look forward to a summer without social controls, to a fully open border, to ending the misery of our fellow citizens stranded throughout the world, and to welcoming them home for Christmas – along with tourists, international students and foreign business partners.

With Aucklanders rather than Wellington bureaucrats now in charge of vaccination across the region, the system has been ramped up to make that easily achievable.

Make no mistake, Ardern has taken a risk today. According to modelling by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), the number of Aucklanders who will go to work on Wednesday will more than triple, from the estimated 150,000 under level 4 to 458,000 under level 3.

That so many Aucklanders have been going to work over the last month underlines that lockdown is largely a middle-class phenomenon. While white collar workers get to work from home or pretend to, those in healthcare, social services, agriculture, forestry, fishing, manufacturing, distribution and retail have been showing up at their workplaces right through. Across the country, over 500,000 essential workers kept the real economy going through the 2020 and 2021 national lockdowns. We should applaud them.

Level 3 means they are joined by more of their workmates, as well as those in the construction sector, accommodation, food services and other industries that can now resume. While a half million Aucklanders will still be working from home or be unable to work under level 3 they will at least have the compensation of junk food, Uber Eats and takeout coffee.

Ardern argues that the 150,000 essential workers in Auckland have not been responsible for much if any community transmission over the last month, which is a credit to them and their employers. But tripling their number inevitably involves greater risk of the outbreak again getting out of control, especially with cases, including mystery cases, not yet down to zero.

What’s more, Ardern and health officials cannot be confident they know about all ongoing community transmission. Ardern will say only that there is no evidence, including from wastewater, of “significant ” community transmission, but the so-called Mongrel Mob Cluster worries officials.

People associated with this cluster are understandably not keen to tell anyone where they have been over the previous 14 days, least of all government officials of any type. Burner phones tend not to come with the Covid tracing app. Yet drug users and law enforcement say there has been no noticeable reduction in the mob’s retail activities or those of their competitors over the last month.

It remains possible Covid is spreading among gang members and their customers throughout Auckland, with few of either keen to come forward for a test even if they feel sick. Lobbyists for liberalising drug laws have a new argument they can present.

One thing is inarguable: the vaccine works. It may not stop all Covid transmission, but it stops it from killing you or your loved ones, or you or them getting very sick.

According to the Ministry of Health, of the 1071 people who tested positive for Covid, 83 per cent were entirely unvaccinated and just 3 per cent fully vaccinated more than two weeks earlier. Any political pollster or health researcher will tell you that legitimate conclusions can be drawn from a sample size of over 1000.

The Ministry’s data shows that the one person who has died during this outbreak was not just 91 and suffering from other illnesses, but was entirely unvaccinated.

The data shows that not a single person who had had even their first jab more than two weeks earlier wound up in an intensive care unit (ICU). Not a single person who was fully vaccinated more than two weeks earlier even ended up in hospital, and just one whose second dose had been administered in the previous two weeks had to be admitted to an ordinary ward.

In contrast, if you are unvaccinated and over age 11, the data from the outbreak suggests you have a 13 per cent chance of being hospitalised, and nearly a 3 per cent chance of dying or ending up in ICU.

The sooner those aged 5 to 11 can also be vaccinated the better. But the good news is that only 1 per cent of the 229 youngsters to catch Delta have needed to be hospitalised, and none has progressed into intensive care or worse.

Once the Prime Minister took Covid seriously in March last year after her initial indecision, she has made the right decision at every juncture. The Wellington bureaucracy may have proven incompetent on everything from distributing personal protection equipment, to procuring saliva testing, to ordering vaccines on time, to expanding ICU, to preventing escapes from managed isolation, to treating Kiwis abroad with the respect warranted by their citizenship. But we are nevertheless in an enviable position as the Prime Minister now leads us beyond the elimination strategy to normal life, at least for the vaccinated.

But it relies on you getting vaccinated. The 17 walk-in or drive-through vaccination centres open from 8am tomorrow. If you haven’t had a first jab, or you are due for your second, you have no excuse not to get to one of them first thing in the morning. Do it.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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