Is New Zealand headed for coronavirus disaster? Ardern’s veneer begins to slip

Covid UK death toll rises by 164

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New Zealand has been well guarded against the high coronavirus death tolls across the world over the last 19 months, closing its borders almost entirely with its Covid-zero approach. There’s no doubt the strategy has worked, likely saving tens of thousands of lives in the South Pacific nation – and it has kept New Zealanders largely free from restrictions, while much of the rest of the world shuttered up.

Only 27 deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in New Zealand, resulting in worldwide admiration and cross-party support.

But things have now taken a turn for the worse, with Auckland grappling with an outbreak of the Delta variant.

The second-largest city is now in its second month of a level three lockdown, which restricts all but nonessential movement that requires proof.

Restrictions are being lifted today, but the veneer is beginning to wash away from Ms Ardern’s success as the country battles to keep its numbers low.

READ MORE: Jacinda Ardern on brink as NZ brings in more lockdowns

This week, as the number of Covid cases bounced from 12 cases one day to 45 the next, formally supportive opposition parties began to decry Ms Ardern’s attempts to suppress the virus.

Both National and its smaller rival, the ACT party, want to do away with it in favour of “vigorous suppression”.

Both want to open the borders soon, and both want to end lockdowns – for good.

National Party leader Judith Collins has declared “things have changed” and has launched her alternative pandemic response plan.

Until recently, Ms Collins had been “very supportive” of Ms Ardern’s response to the pandemic.

She said: “Even though it did take a little while to close the borders, they got on to it … the soundest move seemed to be to go into lockdowns, until we could assess as a country what was the right response.”

But now the Delta variant has arrived, she claims the Government’s response is inadequate, and that the country cannot continue down the path of lockdowns.

The NP leader is advocating for a permanent scrap to lockdowns once the country has acquired 75 percent immunity and reopening borders when 85 percent is achieved – and bearing in mind New Zealand has little in the way of natural immunity, this could still be some way off.

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Modelling from research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini suggests that at that rate, there could still be up to 7,000 deaths and 60,000 hospitalisations.

New Zealand’s vaccination rate is currently low – with only 40 percent fully vaccinated.

Vaccination rates are particularly low among Māori, who are around two-thirds behind the wider population.

However, there has been sustained public support in New Zealand over Ms Ardern’s protective approach, with little to say residents are disobeying the rules to stay at home.

But for a country that hasn’t reckoned with widespread transmission or illness, the excitement over Ms Adern’s decision to change restrictions has been met with apprehension by the public.

Announcing the changes, which include allowing people to meet outside to socialise, Ms Ardern said: “The activities that are being allowed are not considered high risk in our current situation.

“But, they will make a material difference in Aucklanders’ ability to maintain the restrictions that do make a difference.”

Political voices also made themselves heard about the announcement.

Libertarian Act party leader David Seymour said: “Being told we could afford a slow vaccine rollout because we didn’t have Covid in the community is one of the most reckless things any government in New Zealand has ever done and we are now paying the price.”

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