The Siren Song of Negativity: Luke Malpass on Elimination

I must say, I was a bit surprised at the New Zealand Government’s decision to shift Auckland out of Level 4 to Level 3. There are still around 20 daily Delta cases in Auckland (14 today) – a fraction of the earlier peak, but a seriously stubborn tail-end of the outbreak:

Lowering to Level 3 creates the danger that the tail ignites another surge. Some commentators have suggested that we are seeing the tacit “beginning of the end” of Elimination Strategy.

Surprised though I am at the overall decision (it’s not a risk I would have taken), I’d suggest that such commentators are wrong. Hence today’s post. Specifically I thought I’d focus on a piece by one Luke Malpass, Stuff.co.nz’s Political Editor:

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/opinion/126436333/covid-19-if-auckland-isnt-in-level-2-in-two-weeks-elimination-will-have-all-but-failed

Now, the thing about Malpass is that the guy previously worked at the Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. And I daresay, this Australian connection comes through in his piece – it is essentially a watered-down version of the sort of kool aid currently being served up across the Tasman. The notion that lockdowns are politically untenable, and that Governments need to See Reason.

Malpass is rather more cautious than his Australian counterparts, of course. He’s having to write for a country that still overwhelmingly supports Elimination, so he embraces a profoundly (and self-servingly) negative view of the prospects for such measures. He starts off arguing that the Government’s decision represents a politically-motivated weakening in Fortress New Zealand:

The change does not indicate an end to the elimination strategy. Yet. What it does indicate is a higher level of official comfort with the Covid-19 cases that are still emerging in Auckland, which have averaged around 20 per day for a couple of weeks now.

And then concludes failure:

Effectively, the Government’s actions have now reflected the reality that a continued super-hard lockdown in Auckland was simply not tenable. A key bit of the elimination strategy is the theory that by having a short but hard lockdown, life can get back to normal more quickly. By the time this is up for review in a fortnight, Auckland will have been in a lockdown (level 4 or level 3) for seven weeks.

If Auckland isn’t ready to drop to alert level 2 by then, elimination as a worthwhile public policy goal will have failed. The best that can be said about the response to this latest outbreak is that if the virus is spotted early, hard and decisive lockdowns are successful at controlling the Delta variant of Covid-19. But not eliminating it.

But here’s the thing: the Government and its Health Advisers know more about those residual cases than we do. And if I had to hazard a guess… the remaining cases are a handful of muppets in South Auckland (a few with criminal gang connections), who wouldn’t be obeying state health directives regardless. Those people can really only be dealt with via time-consuming contact tracing. If true, the Government has the virus cornered, so holding the rest of Auckland hostage at Level 4 (rather than Level 3 lockdown) would achieve comparatively little beyond Playing Safe. Sure, I’d personally prefer to Play Safe, but Jacinda Ardern (with more data at hand) clearly disagrees.

What commentators like Malpass also ignore is the success of Level 4 in turning a Big Delta outbreak into a Small Delta outbreak… with just one death, total. That’s the role of Level 4 – it’s a sledgehammer, involving what amounts to the strictest Covid restrictions in the Western World. And last year, when New Zealand moved out of Level 4 and into Level 3, there were also still cases left, which were subsequently mopped up by Level 3. Queensland was able to eliminate a Small Delta outbreak with only Level 3-type measures. So Level 3 is clearly up to the job (or so we hope anyway), though it might take longer than we want, and probably longer than the two week deadline Malpass gives it. It’s all about the contract tracers versus the muppets at this point, and that is still consistent with an overall Elimination Strategy.

It is the last three paragraphs, however, where Malpass’ negativity turns into barely-concealed glee, as he anticipates the downfall of that hated Fortress New Zealand:

At this point, there is little more idea about what will follow after a sufficient portion of the population deemed sufficient is vaccinated. One thing is clear – the current alert levels framework will essentially be retired and replaced by something else. The virus will be expected to arrive in the country and there will be contact tracing and isolation regime of some description.

At the Reconnecting New Zealand forum, held the week before lockdown while Covid was once again, unbeknownst to us, out and about in Auckland, elimination was still envisaged to be part of the mix into next year. It is very difficult to now see how that will be tenable sitting alongside a new plan, with a hopefully highly vaccinated population wanting to live life more normally.

What this outbreak has really done is brought the Government’s plans for reopening forward. Now it’s not a matter of opening up being good for people who wish to travel, but that getting vaccinated and learning to live with Covid is going to be an imperative for being able to legally venture out of your front garden, go to work, run your business and live your life.

Yep. Lockdowns don’t work, apparently, and all we have to do to “live life more normally” is vaccinate and re-open. Which really is Malpass’ underlying motivation with his piece all along – he wants us to drink the same kool aid as New South Wales, so is frantically pushing the notion of current policy failure. If we can only become as plague-infested as Sydney and Melbourne, he and his ilk in the media won’t face barriers on their next Trans-Tasman shopping trip, which at heart is all he cares about.

Because in all Malpass’ concern and crocodile tears about people having a normal life, there is not one reference to the corpses piling up in Sydney… deaths by policy failure if ever there was. Gladys and her cheer-leaders might accept the insanity across the Tasman, but New Zealand can’t and won’t. So unfortunately for Malpass and his dreams of drinking lattes in Sydney with his old media mates… I not only expect eventual Elimination in Auckland, but would place good money on this outbreak delaying (potentially indefinitely) any re-opening to Australia. Schadenfreude for Schadenfreude, I suppose.

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