The fall of Jacinda Ardern: Delta, low vaccination rates unravel New Zealand’s COVID lockdown strategy

, The fall of Jacinda Ardern: Delta, low vaccination rates unravel New Zealand’s COVID lockdown strategy, Nzuchi Times National News

New Zealand’s prime minister was praised for her decisive pandemic reaction. But, as vaccination rates stall, cracks in her plan are now emerging

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In May last year, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s youngest prime minister, also became its most popular since records began.

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The phenomenon of “Jacinda-mania” swept through the island nation as she won worldwide praise for the decisive action that had restricted the country’s COVID-related deaths to just 26.

But the war against coronavirus is far from over, and there are growing signs that the 41-year-old Labour Party leader’s strategy of closing her country’s borders is unravelling.

The wildly infectious Delta variant has found its way into Auckland, and is spreading faster than the government can track it, despite a fresh lockdown. Fifty new cases were reported over the weekend and another 29 on Monday, bringing the current total number to 287 — including a newborn baby. The lockdown restrictions were expanded to the area south of New Zealand’s largest city after the emergence of unlinked cases in the Waikato region.

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Ardern’s failure to vaccinate the Kiwi population, of whom 80 per cent remain unprotected, has made the country the perfect host for Delta, with no immunity through exposure to COVID. She threw a belt around her country, but did not bother with the braces.

Only now is she abandoning her “elimination” strategy in favour of a three-stage roadmap that takes into account vaccination rates.


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There is speculation in scientific circles that New Zealand could experience similar levels of deaths to other countries as it goes through a delayed health disaster.

“At the moment, it’s not totally beyond hope that New Zealand could control its new cluster, but the odds are against it,” says Paul Hunter, professor of health protection at the University of East Anglia.

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“In a very short space of time, they could be trying to slow the spread and flatten the curve just as Britain was more than a year ago.

“All power to New Zealand for keeping deaths so low, but the issue is that if your policy fails and you haven’t got anything else in place, it will be as bad as if you had let it rip right from the start. New Zealand could find all the sacrifices of the past year wasted if they do not get their population immunized quickly enough.”

Ardern’s policy of never-ending lockdowns and isolation has been described as “absurd” by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who added that no country could “stay in the cave” forever.

Opposition parties in New Zealand are also on the attack: David Seymour, 38-year-old leader of the Right-wing ACT party (Association of Consumers and Taxpayers), said that while the rest of the world was moving forward by vaccinating its way out of lockdowns and border controls, “we are starting to go backwards.”

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Ardern put her country into lockdown last week after a single case of the Delta variant ended the COVID-free run it had been on since February. The current numbers are still tiny but are a sign nevertheless that things might be out of control.

, The fall of Jacinda Ardern: Delta, low vaccination rates unravel New Zealand’s COVID lockdown strategy, Nzuchi Times National News
New Zealand will phase out a COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland that led to a largely deserted city when enacted in August. (Picture taken August 26, 2021.) Photo by Fiona Goodall/Reuters/File

Health chiefs have now identified 480 “locations of interest” in the country. Ardern has faced a welter of criticism for failing to capitalize on the COVID-free months to get her population vaccinated; current estimates suggest it will take until at least Christmas to catch up with the U.K., with border controls expected to be in place until next year.

, The fall of Jacinda Ardern: Delta, low vaccination rates unravel New Zealand’s COVID lockdown strategy, Nzuchi Times National News

Sir Peter Gluckman, New Zealand’s former chief scientific adviser and director of the Koi T? Centre for Informed Studies, says: “The government is realizing it can’t go another year without opening up, but it can’t do that without a high level of vaccination and societal licence. It’s a lot easier to lock down than to open up.

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“Meanwhile, the tech sector is crying out for high quality labour that can’t get into the country, and the hospitality sector is crying out for imported labour. These sectors are hurting and they can’t take advantage of New Zealand’s position.”

The nation had run a budget surplus for five years before the pandemic, putting it in a strong position to bail out businesses that have been worst hit by its border controls, which ban non-residents from entering unless they have an “exceptional reason.” Those who are let into the country must quarantine in a hotel for two weeks at their own expense.

But with a budget deficit of 7.5 per cent of GDP in the last financial year, New Zealand must repair its economy, which it will struggle to do if it remains in isolation.

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“Early on in the outbreak, New Zealand was a great example of how you could deal with the virus through lockdowns and social distancing,” says Prof. Jonathan Ball, an expert on emerging viruses at the University of Nottingham.

“We have to accept that now we’ve moved on from that. It’s incredibly difficult to secure your borders forever, and the only thing New Zealand is left with is vaccination, otherwise they are pretty much fighting a losing battle because you are always going to have the virus knocking on your door.”

Ball said New Zealand’s problem is that its population, and particularly young people, have built up no natural immunity through exposure to the virus, meaning it will spread quickly in nightclubs, pubs and other crowded places.

Scientists are broadly in agreement that New Zealand is never likely to see the sort of infection rate per capita experienced in the U.K., partly because it has already vaccinated around a fifth of its population, and because it is sparsely populated by comparison, with a much fitter and less obese society.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s tiny death toll could yet end up in the thousands because of its over-reliance on isolation and slow take-up of vaccines. Its citizens are also becoming weary of lockdowns and travel bans, with undeniable consequences for their mental health.

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