Bryce Edwards: Covid complacency could be a problem again in 2022

Bryce Edwards: Covid complacency could be a problem again in 2022

The school that one of my kids goes to announced today that they have gone back to compulsory mask-wearing. It’s a sign of where things are heading, with a second wave of Omicron surging across the country.

Understandably, this is the news that nobody wanted to hear. However, all the Covid stats are currently heading in the wrong direction, meaning greater restrictions may need to be imposed again to prevent disaster.

It’s not only unwelcome news for the public, but also a huge problem for the Government, which is highly allergic to increased Covid restrictions, and especially the idea of shifting the country back into the red traffic light setting. The Prime Minister seems to be doing her best to avoid discussing the Covid situation, but when confronted with questions she has been dismissive of greater restrictions.

So, this all raises the question of whether we are going to let Covid complacency catch us out again in 2022.

The facts about the second wave of Omicron

What do we currently know about the latest surge? Firstly, the number of reported infections is increasing fast. After being around 5,000 a day, the weekly rolling average has now hit 8,013. And we have now had three days of hitting the 10,000 threshold.

Covid modeller Professor Michael Plank says we appear to be seeing infection numbers double about every 14 days. He, along with other public health academics, is suggesting that we may soon see a national peak of at least 20,000 daily cases. Others are stating a possible figure of 25,000.

In terms of hospitalisations, the seven-day rolling average has risen from 347 to 454. And today it hit 554. As epidemiologist Michael Baker says, “All the signs point towards a large wave of Covid-19 with an abrupt rise in cases”.

Deaths are also up – with an average now of about 15 a day. According to the “Our World in Data” source, New Zealand has the 6th highest weekly death rate, with only tiny countries faring worse than us.

The problem is that New Zealand is being infected with new and evolving variants of the Omicron virus. And these are more and more transmissible.

At the same time, the public’s immunity is waining. The fourth vaccine is currently being rolled out, but isn’t expected to occur very quickly or widely. Although the country achieved a high rate of double-vaccination, the rate of triple-vaxxed people is said to be only 73 per cent. What’s more the current vaccine appears to be less effective against the new variants.

Meanwhile, mask-wearing is said to be dropping fast, due to “mask fatigue” and complacency. According to the head of Retail New Zealand, Greg Hartford, customer compliance has “dropped off a cliff” with now only a third of shoppers wearing masks.

Increasing demand for action

Increasingly public health experts are calling for more to be done – especially around mask-wearing. For example, yesterday 1News reported: “150 health experts have called for the Government to introduce more restrictions to slow the spread of Covid-19. Recommendations included making masks mandatory in schools over winter, giving people greater access to high-quality masks, and pushing for better ventilation indoors.”

Now that the daily infection rate has surpassed 10,000 – which was previously given as a rough threshold for the country being put into the Red setting of the traffic lights system – there are also increasing calls for a re-evaluation of the government rules and settings.

According to University of Auckland senior lecturer in computational evolution Dr David Welch, “Going back to red is something that the Government would be looking at very closely right now, they’d be looking at how the hospitals are coping and what are the projections”.

Certainly, if the numbers of infections really do head towards 20,000 a day, there will be expanded calls for the country to go into Red, or for the Orange settings to be adjusted.

The politics of going red

The decision to bring in greater Covid restrictions is clearly a political one to be made by the Government. And they are likely to be in a better place to judge what needs to be done than health specialists.

Politicians need to balance many different needs. This is well put today in the Herald by news director Lynley Ward, who says: “They’ve got so many competing interests now. You’ve got the business lobby and the economic imperative to get the country going as well as the social imperative, which includes getting children back in schools.”

That social imperative is acknowledged by many health experts. For example, Ross Lawrenson, a professor of public health at the University of Waikato stated this: “From a public health point of view, it would be nice to make masks compulsory and restrict movement around and try and restrict the spread, not only of Covid but also influenza… But I don’t think that practically, society … is up for that.”

According to Herald political editor Claire Trevett, the Government’s “mantra seems to be ABR: Anything but Red.”

Reacting to Ardern’s dismissal of going to Red anytime soon, Trevett explains today: “The last thing the Government will want to do is slap the country back into red just as school holidays are about to start – it would infuriate businesses… Nor would it be a great look in the middle of the PM’s globe-trotting exercise, pitching the Great Re-Opening of New Zealand and assuring the word we were open for business. Open for business provided you are seated and separated doesn’t have the same ring.”

Ardern’s wariness about going to Red is backed up by a lot of public voices. For instance, yesterday the broadcaster Broadcaster Kate Hawkesby said: “I think even the most law abiding lockdown fanatic would find it hard to stomach more restrictions coming back, just as we’ve worked so hard to shrug them off and find some normality. Compliance would be an issue”.

This doesn’t mean the Government can be complacent, however. Broadcaster, Rachel Smalley, says it’s time for the Government to start giving us more information about what’s going on: “The Government has been criticised for over-communicating at times but the silence at the moment is deafening. The polls will have told Labour that everyone’s a bit over Covid, and that’s why the PM has distanced herself from the response. And our Director-General, Ashley Bloomfield has resigned, so we’re a bit at sea and reliant on Ministers – which is fine, but I think we need to hear more from them.”

As infection rates rise, New Zealand’s Covid response will once against become debated and politicised. And in this regard, former National leader Simon Bridges writes today in the NBR, saying: “let’s all remember to have a little humility about what has and hasn’t worked. No country has got it entirely right. Not the UK, but not NZ either. We are increasingly working out Covid policies are not just about Covid health, strictly speaking, but have wider health, economic, social, and – ultimately – societal ramifications, short and much longer term. It isn’t, as many in our little nation blithely seem to have assumed, a binary, but rather a nuanced and complex set of issues.”

Also writing in the NBR today, political editor Brent Edwards warns his commercial readership not to be complacent about where things are heading: “businesses should be prepared for the worst and the possible move to the red light setting if the surge in cases shows no sign of slowing. At that point indoor gatherings are limited to 200, customers must be seated and separated from others, masks must be worn at hospitality venues and all hospitality workers must wear them.”

And Brent Edwards rightly concludes: “There is no doubt that people are sick of the virus but the problem is, the virus is not sick of us.” Complacency is clearly something that both public and politicians need to be wary of.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on Covid

Michael Plank, Audrey Lustig, David Welch and Giorgia Vattiato (The Conversation): A new Omicron wave is upon New Zealand, with older people now most at risk – here’s what to expect
Claire Trevett (Herald): A shift to the Covid-19 Red setting? Not on the PM’s nelly(paywalled)
Damien Venuto (Herald): How bad would Omicron wave have to get to put NZ back in red?
Brent Edwards (NBR): Pandemic not sick of us, despite public weariness (paywalled)
Simon Bridges (NBR): Covid-19 settings channel need for Braveheart’s freedom roar(paywalled)
Shanti Mathias (Spinoff): How do Aotearoa’s Covid regulations compare to the most up-to-date science?
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): The seemingly untameable beast that is Covid
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): We must learn to live with the road toll
Emile Donovan (RNZ): Covid-19 isn’t done with us yet
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): I can’t imagine the damage if we go back to red again
Tom Dillane (Herald): Jacinda Ardern deflects speculation NZ will return to red traffic light after 3000-plus spike in cases
1News: New variants could see ‘unacceptable’ number of Covid deaths
Hamish Clark (Herald): Covid 19 wave is on the rise – why I got my second booster shot now
Robert MacCulloch: NZ currently has one of the highest weekly Covid death rates in the world
Jamie Morton (Herald): Omicron subvariants explained: What they are and what we know
Megan Wilson (Herald): Second wave has started, more elderly getting infected – experts(paywalled)


Other items of interest and importance today

Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): ‘The world is bloody messy’: PM Jacinda Ardern delivers foreign policy speech in Australia at Lowy Institute
Irra Lee (1News): Ardern addresses China, Russia in significant foreign policy speech
RNZ: ‘It is grim out there’ says Jacinda Ardern in foreign policy speech
Luke Malpass (Stuff): PM says Russia’s war ‘morally bankrupt’ but should not be seen as broader conflict
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Jacinda Ardern soft-pedals on China’s Pacific ambitions (paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Jacinda Ardern feels the fresh breeze blowing through Australian politics
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Why you keep hearing about the ‘Indo-Pacific’
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): Why NZ’s role in the Pacific is more crucial than ever before
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): ‘This talanoa is esential for NZ’: Aupito heads to Fiji for Pacific ministerial
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern rejects China’s criticism of her, says legacy of Ukraine war can’t be more nuclear weapons
RNZ: It was now or never for NZ-EU trade deal, negotiator says
Nigel Stirling (Farmers Weekly): Dairy industry dismayed at EU FTA
Damien Venuto (Herald): ‘Culture clash’: Did Govt mess up by omitting dairy, meat from EU free trade deal?
Jeff McNeill (Stuff): EU free-trade agreement: It was never about the money or greener grass
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Creatives fear ‘uncharted territory’ as copyright extension fast-tracked
Colin Robinson (Pundit): For a true ‘Partnership for the Blue Pacific’, we’ll need more Pacific partners
Richard Harman: Grandad’s army; why our air force planes can’t fly (paywalled)
Tom Hunt (Stuff): Wellington mayor’s flag veto controversy leads to ministry policy change
Tom Hunt (Stuff): Wellington mega pipe being diverted due to Chinese embassy security fears

Katie Todd (RNZ): Worker shortages hitting across sectors
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Who do we turn to when the Government stops listening?
Cameron Smith (Herald): Wages rising – but how to ask for that pay raise? (paywalled)
John Weekes (Herald): Labour crisis: Don’t be in business if you can’t pay decent wages, AUT hospo expert says (paywalled)
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Christopher Luxon unleashes on Government over lack of action on dire staff shortages
Russell Palmer and Craig McCulloch (RNZ): Michael Wood ‘open’ to immigration changes for nurses if new system fails
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Labour crisis: ANZ boss urges Govt to loosen immigration settings (paywalled)
Michael Neilson (Herald): New Immigration Minister Michael Wood grilled on nurse shortage as Health NZ CEO joins criticism
Andrea Fox (Herald): Sealord’s SoS to office staff for factory floor as labour crisis hits hoki season (paywalled)
Richard Prebble (Herald): What NZ can learn from America’s severe labour shortage(paywalled)
Newshub: Ryan Bridge urges Labour to push ahead with immigration changes for nurses
Erica Stanford (Herald): Open the tap on overseas nurses and specialists, Minister
Ganesh Nana (Herald): New Zealand’s productivity woes – is immigration the answer?(paywalled)
Andrew Gunn (Spinoff): Chasing the dream of $60 per hour

Bernard Hickey (Spinoff): Why we shouldn’t hold out too much hope for a grocery market ‘2degrees effect’
Bernard Hickey (Interest): Government proposes telco-style grocery industry regulator and mandatory code of conduct
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): David Clark says Kiwis will be better off with new supermarket watchdog, can’t say how much shoppers will save or when
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): I’m not sure a Grocery Commissioner is actually going to bring change
RNZ: Grocery Commissioner: New role won’t mean sudden price drops – Vegetable NZ
Isaac Davison (Herald): New Grocery Commissioner to police supermarket sector, ‘blow the whistle’ on ripoffs
Herald: Editorial: Supermarket profits face more counter measures (paywalled)
Rebecca Howard (BusinessDesk): Govt plans for grocery commissioner well received(paywalled)
Dita De Boni (NBR): Smoke and mirrors in action as supermarkets ‘open’ wholesale(paywalled)

Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): The New Zealand economy and its zombies
Rob Stock (Stuff): Struggling to get by on a household income of $150,000 or more
Brent Edwards (NBR): Wellbeing survey shows most are satisfied with work-life balance(paywalled)
Bryce Wilkinson (Herald): Does the long-dormant New Zealand Treasury stir?(paywalled)
Eric Crampton (Newsroom): Finally our unemployment figures make sense
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Inflation never far away as PM Jacinda Ardern heads to Sydney to sell New Zealand
Shamubeel Eaqub (BusinessDesk): Is NZ talking itself into recession? (paywalled)
Jenny Ruth (BusinessDesk): What if we’re already in recession? (paywalled)
Michael Reddell: What might be done about the Reserve Bank

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): How “New” is our democracy?
Shane Te Pou (Herald): Christopher Luxon has shown what kind of Prime Minister he would be (paywalled)
Candice Luke (Māori TV): Luxon claims winning Ōtara rugby team, from Botany
The Facts: 6% of votes are “wasted” each election (8.5% in 2020)
Gordon Campbell: On finding a model to replace the monarchy
Mike Hosking (Newstalk): Govt is more and more out of touch from the real world

Phil Pennington (RNZ): Plans for $2b spend on Wellington’s hospitals moving ‘at pace’ despite DHBs’ demise
Alex Spence (Herald): Mental health unit ‘chaotic’, staff worried teens could die
1News: NZ study links rheumatic fever to skin infections, poverty
Stephen Forbes (Local Democracy Reporting): Is Middlemore’s ED changing after patient’s death – or is it business as usual?
David Farrar: The pressure on hospitals isn’t due to increased ED presentations
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): My friends with cancer ‘would be dead’ if they relied on public health system
Ian Powell: Lazarus, relevance and the NZMA
John MacDonald (Herald): Action needed on child tooth decay
Felix Walton (RNZ): Poor state of some children’s teeth an inequality issue, experts say
Zarina Hewlett (Today FM): ‘We need more prevention’ in New Zealand’s children dental system – Dr Dorothy Boyd

Peter Dunne: “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” yeah, right
Erin Gourley (Stuff): ‘Eye-watering’ $120m cost for Wellington light rail business case revealed
Kate Green (Stuff): Half-price fares to end in August despite cost of living still rising
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Commission says Wellington transport plan is counter-productive to carbon targets
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Wellington mayoral hopefuls should leave $7.4b transport plan alone (paywalled)
Erin Gourley and Kate Green (Stuff): Light rail option for Wellington to move ahead after councils back Government’s preferred option
Mohammad Alafeshat (RNZ): Free public transport for long-term hits the mark, survey finds
Bernard Orsman (Herald): Mayoral candidate Efeso Collins eyeing money from new roads to pay for free public transport

Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Public’s trust in police a factor in probe of Alan Hall case, law professor says
Brigitte Morten (NBR): Hopes new sheriff Kiri Allan will clip law and order ticket(paywalled)
Joanne Naish (Stuff): Reward offered for information about unlawful Pike River payout
Anna Whyte (1News): Legal aid to be accessible to 90,000 more people
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Justice is only for the rich in NZ

Damien Venuto (Herald): Chloe Swarbrick’s message to lobbyists as she readies next political fight
Chlöe Swarbrick (Herald): Alcohol abuse in New Zealand is a failure of drug regulation
Jack Tame (Herald): This time politicians can’t hide from the booze debate

Steve Maharey (Stuff): It’s time to stop tolerating intolerance
David Farrar: The numbers on abortion law in NZ
Herald: Editorial: Roe v Wade abortion debate and what it means for New Zealand(paywalled)
Hayden Donnell (RNZ): Roe v Wade ruling triggers intense media reaction
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Lana Hart and the Left’s abortion optimism seems as brittle as the NZ Rights abortion denial

Melanie Earley (Stuff): Kiwis dream of buying homes but feel trapped in the rental system, report shows
David Hargreaves (Interest): NZ housing: Why stating the obvious has become essential
Miriam Bell (Stuff): No end in sight for falling house prices
Stuff: Editorial – Wellington City Council’s ‘possibly illegal’ move to reduce housing density is a devastating about-turn
Tony Alexander (One Roof): Reserve Bank’s ‘wishful thinking’ on housing market’s future

Bill Hickman (Stuff): Disgraced former National MP Aaron Gilmore chasing Wellington City Council seat
Todd Niall (Stuff): Auckland mayoralty: The return of the magnificent seven (spoiler: it’s a rerun)
Steven Walton (Stuff): Mayoral hopeful David Meates wants to change Christchurch’s rhetoric of disasters
Rosie Gordon (RNZ): Mayoral candidate Paul Eagle on putting new billboards after taking down the last lot

Benedict Collins (1News): Three Waters contractor and consultant costs swell
Rachel Canning (Herald): Taupō District Council strongly opposed to Three Waters reforms
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Wellington City Council votes against joining Three Waters ‘splinter group’
Logan Savory (Stuff): Invercargill council votes against joining 3 Waters group
Barrie Saunders: $100 billion nationalisation but where is the business media?

Willie Jackson (Herald): The challenges ahead for broadcasting in Aotearoa (paywalled)
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Govt could yet force tech giants to pay NZ media
John Weekes (Herald): Wall Street Journal banned after invoking Treasury’s wrath with embargo breach

Richard Harman: Everybody is worried about Groundswell (paywalled)
Olivia Wannan (Stuff): Farm fertilisers should face a climate penalty ASAP – commission
Russell Palmer (RNZ): He Waka Eke Noa needs ‘critical’ changes, but government cannot delay – Climate Change Commission
The Country: NZ’s agricultural sector needs to take ‘bold actions’ to help steer ‘food transition’ – Rabobank CEO
David Williams (Newsroom): Time to kick our meat and dairy habit
Olli Hellmann (The Conversation): Nation-building or nature-destroying? Why it’s time NZ faced up to the environmental damage of its colonial past