Let us get on with Covid, Hello world, welcome to Paradise

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, February 24, 2022

                                        

                                                       Fully vaccinated international travellers with valid visas can arrive from March 13, 2022 (RNZ Photo by Liu Chen)

The surreal occupation of Parliament’s grounds and environs and the increasingly objectionable behaviour of at least some of the protesters is understandably dominating the news cycles at present.

Whatever else it is doing, it is distracting attention from other arguably more important developments in New Zealand’s struggle against Covid-19 and its variants.

Reconnecting to the world

Next week, New Zealand resumes its slow and hitherto spluttering reconnection with the world. From 27 February, New Zealanders who are fully vaccinated, and eligible travellers from Australia will be able to enter the country and self-isolate, rather than go into MIQ.

Two weeks after that fully vaccinated New Zealanders and other currently eligible travellers from the rest of the world will be spared the ordeal of MIQ, if they are fully vaccinated, in favour of self-isolation.

Overseas students will be able to return from early April and it is likely by July, if not sooner, that New Zealand will be effectively open once more to all those visitors from countries with visa-free entry here. By October, at the latest, it is intended travellers from all countries, with or without visa-free entry status, will be allowed back to New Zealand.

Omicron spreads but some fear

These shifts are taking place against the backdrop of the rapid escalation of the number of Omicron cases showing up in the community, with the outbreak expected to peak over the next three to six weeks and decline quickly thereafter.

Based on overseas experience, most of those contracting Omicron are likely to experience mild symptoms, akin to those of a heavy cold.

However, as this slow shift to normality is underway, and the emphasis shifts to living with the virus and its consequences, rather than eliminating it, there are still public health messages that paint a far grimmer picture.

Some epidemiologists are still warning that Omicron is serious, and that people should be cautious about more normalised contact with others.

Therefore, it is no surprise that public opinion on what to do next remains divided.

Divided Opinions

A recent Ipsos poll found that about half the country supports the current Red Traffic Light approach, with the other half split between those who think it is too rigid and those who think it is not rigid enough.

A Research NZ poll reported that people are evenly divided between getting on with their lives as usual and going into a personal form of Level 4 lockdown while Omicron is around.

Overall, the government moves to reconnect New Zealand with the world notwithstanding, there is no doubt that many people remain wary of doing so.

 

(Image from Renews.co.nz)

Despite high vaccination rates and the international evidence that Omicron’s impact on the health of vaccinated people is generally no more than an inconvenience, many New Zealanders are still too frightened about the potential risk Omicron poses and are therefore reluctant to resume life as usual.

Against this backdrop, comments last week from the Medical Director of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, Dr Bryan Betty, are worth noting.

Changing the mindset

Dr Betty has been a vocal supporter of the government’s approach to the pandemic but says that it is now time for a “change in mindset” in how the country lives with Covid-19 and to move on from the fear and anxiety that had been built up about Covid19.

He wants to “focus on other health issues and illnesses that are waiting in the wings.”

With winter on the way, he said, influenza is a “big concern” because lockdowns and border closures have reduced the public’s exposure. (It is worth noting that around 500 people die from influenza each year in New Zealand.)

He also said more attention needs to be given to non-Covid child immunisation rates because falling jab rates could trigger outbreaks of whooping cough and measles.

“The pandemic will come to an end in the next six to 12 months. That is not to say that Covid-19 will disappear – it won’t. However, we will learn to live with it in the same way as we do with colds and flu.  We need to de-escalate this to get into a position where most of us are just going to have a mild to moderate illness, that we are going to get through like any respiratory illness in winter. We need to be moving on, and perhaps the way we are approaching it at the moment is causing more problems than good, and we may have reached a pivot point with that,” he said.

Reducing public anxiety

His comments were echoed earlier this week by Dr John Bonning, chair of the Council of Medical Colleges, who said that while many public health measures needed to stay, and changes should be step by step, Omicron, combined with high vaccination rates, was causing much less serious illness among vaccinated people. It was time to start to reduce some of the public anxiety that has built up over the last two years, he said.

Implicit in both the Betty and Bonning comments is the suggestion that the continued hyping up of the Omicron threat is not helpful to New Zealand’s management of this phase of the pandemic and may even be counter-productive in terms of the public response.

These are telling criticisms from experienced medical professionals that deserve far wider attention and consideration than they appear to have received.

The government stance

As New Zealand stands on the cusp of becoming connected once again to the rest of the world, and there is clear public apprehension about that, commentary from senior Ministers along the lines of Betty’s and Bonning’s remarks would be helpful in reassuring a jittery public.

Unfortunately, there have been none so far, suggesting the government, like its epidemiologist advisers, still sees maintaining a high level of public fear of the current state of the pandemic as useful, while it goes about the reconnection process.

Drs Betty and Bonning have raised important issues that deserve debate and consideration, greater than the ongoing focus on the occupation at Parliament and the gridlock it is causing in the nearby streets. Whatever other impact that circus may be having, it is not reducing the fear and anxiety many people retain about the impact of Omicron. The focus needs to shift to address the far more important issues Drs Betty and Bonning are drawing attention to.

The government should heed their message and change its messaging to reflect what they are saying to reduce the fear and consequent anxiety many New Zealanders still have about returning to a more normal way of life.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.

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