OOne of the many quotes attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that he probably never said was that he preferred his lucky generals rather than capable ones. When it comes to a matter of life and death, “give me lucky generals,” he allegedly pleaded.
It’s a view that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern echoed this week when she announced that Auckland – home to about a third of all New Zealanders – was emerging from strict Level 4 lockdown to level 3. Replace âgeneralsâ with âpoliticalâ and you get a pretty good idea of ââthe big cabinet call this week. In a country that has essentially tattooed “go hard, go early” on one collective arm and “stay home, stay safe” on the other, the decision to let an estimated 300,000 people return to their workplaces While Auckland is still experiencing 15 to 30 cases per day in the community is a turning point in the government’s approach to this pandemic. Both in terms of public health and politically. A year ago, public opinion would not have placed such confidence in âlucky generalsâ. But that was a year ago.
Some said the cabinet decision ended New Zealand’s elimination strategy. Some – ignoring the evidence of just 27 dead and our hospital departments clearly not overwhelmed – claim it’s the elimination of the evidence and the lockdowns haven’t worked.
Others, including Ardern and his cabinet colleagues, insist that level 3 is always about disposal. But the language has undeniably changed. The strictly evidence-based approach of the past 18 months is on hold, and this week the language of luck has established itself as one of Napoleon’s hats.
In truth, New Zealand has taken a lot of luck with this pandemic. The inability to properly test border staff, people escaping MIQ but never spreading the disease, the slow initial deployment of the vaccine that sidelined general practitioners, hesitation over salvia testing and quarantine centers built in this effectâ¦ yes, luck has always been a part of history, in addition to making the big calls. But it is different.
This week just about every epidemiologist has used the words “calculated risk” and epidemiologist Michael Baker has categorically said “it’s a gamble.” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was reduced to insisting that âwe still have a very good chance of going down to zero. [community cases]â.
Betting our biggest city on âa good shotâ is quite a change. Despite everything the government says elimination remains the goal, basic math suggests this week’s decision has lengthened the odds of getting there.
Political leaders always make deals between today and tomorrow. Protect the retirement pension now, risk less for our children. Cut taxes in the hope of a fiscal stimulus now, but reduce the country’s savings. Here we go. For 18 months, Labor has banked on public health, saving lives like taxes. Now, however, the government is playing for the first time with the public health equivalent of loosening the purse strings. Choose the present rather than what is to come. Risking their legacy as ‘Covid drummers’ for the sake of Auckland’s short-term mental health and economy. Support the lucky generals over the able ones.
This is a big step for Ardern. Notably because amid the polarizing adoration and fury it inspires, the Prime Minister is instinctively and by training a conservative. stubbornly cautious. So why this âcalculated riskâ? Why bet on luck?
In part, she needs to be convinced from her data that the number of community cases is not going to explode. A surge in the next two weeks and discussions of a return to Level 4 would be devastating for all. And in a way, she may well feel like she’s not increasing the risk so much as replacing blockages with vaccinations as her key tool in the fight against Covid; moving its public health bullets from black to red.
Yet even though the government data is better than the public knows, it is a greater political risk than it has taken before in this pandemic. So why?
For starters, there was a growing political cost of staying at Level 4. After initially talking about a “short and sharp” lockdown and creating expectations over the past fifteen weeks of a drop in levels, she had gone. painted in some kind of corner. And as much of the rest of the world puts the blockages behind them, our continued reliance on them could undermine our reputation as global winners in Covid issues. And his.
Plus, you don’t need a focus group or even a trip to the pub to know the mood in this country is changing. The government’s short-lived plan to open after Christmas has been called into question by all manner of doubts by Delta. People understand what is to follow in the dark.
Frustration in Auckland increased and the cabinet would have known it was in danger of losing the crowd; there is no point in imposing level 4 when you know that people will change their behavior despite everything. Part of good public health management is knowing how much people can take, and Auckland was creaking.
Remember, elections are always won and lost in Auckland. Labor picked up in the provinces in the last election and outperformed in rural areas. But Ardern knows she can’t hold those numbers and Auckland will be the key to another term.
Labor will be wary that voters do not always reward heroic leaders in wartime after the crisis is over. They are looking for new skills for new times. Just ask Winston Churchill. And while Ardern may be fortunate enough to face the worst opposition since, well, the dismal efforts of her own party through most of the 2010s, she knows such luck – and the leader of the opposition Judith Collins – will not last forever.
So while the New Zealanders won’t really know if we’ve abandoned our elimination strategy for a week or two and a lot will depend on the Aucklanders’ choices during that time (not to mention the weather this weekend), there is no doubt that the public mood is changing.
Ardern therefore seems to have decided that if she is going to bet, it could just as well be on the behavior of the New Zealanders as on the behavior of the Delta variant.