by Lynda Goetz
“Australia’s borders are currently closed”, it says very clearly on the Australian Government website (although there are exempt categories and individual exemptions can be obtained). These restrictions have been in place since 20th March, 2020 in response to the Covid crisis. Borders were closed in New Zealand at almost exactly the same time and have also remained closed ever since, as both countries pursued a zero Covid strategy. Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, abandoned this at the beginning of September. At the end of September, things changed in New Zealand too. Their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that the country would no longer be pursuing its elimination policy, as the latest seven-week lock-down had failed to keep out the Delta variant.
Some have viewed New Zealand’s approach to the virus as a “spectacular success”. True, it has had one of the lowest rates of cases and deaths in the world. There have been only 5,055 infections and 28 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, according to the Reuters website. Here, many have wondered why the UK did not likewise shut its borders back in March 2020. The problems with so doing are however self-evident. We live in an interconnected world. Trade and tourism are very much part of the way we all live. Countries like Australia and New Zealand are more able to shut out the rest of the world. A small island like the UK could never have done so without immense destruction to our economy. We are not self-sufficient.
The whole idea of lock-downs has been a massive global experiment, never before attempted on such a scale in democratic countries. Epidemiologists and modellers have acclaimed it a success. The long-term costs in terms of not only the economy, but also in terms of education and other health issues remain to be assessed. It is likely they never really will be, although there is some evidence that countries which applied less draconian restrictions, such as Sweden, have not come out a great deal worse overall when the whole picture is reviewed. For those countries which have not entirely closed their borders, things are, albeit slowly, getting back to normal. In terms of travel, Europe has been rather quicker with this than the UK. Here our traffic light system has, to a great degree, put the brakes on freedom of movement. Travel to so-called ‘red’ countries (i.e. with high infection rates) necessitates hotel quarantine on return to this country at not inconsiderable personal cost. Costs are also incurred in purchasing the legally-required tests necessary on return from any country, although these are now being relaxed for those who are ‘double-jabbed’.
Vaccination rates in this country, according to the latest figures from Our World in Data, currently stands at over 66% fully vaccinated with 6.7% partially vaccinated. Three weeks ago in Australia, the number fully vaccinated was only 46.95% and in New Zealand, only 43.3%. In both these countries vaccination roll-out has been far slower than in Europe and other developed countries. Portugal, which has roughly double the population of New Zealand, has managed to have 85.2% of its population fully vaccinated. Many are now questioning the wisdom of Jacinta Ardern’s approach. However, her turnaround in September has resulted in a massive effort to get more people vaccinated and by the beginning of this week New Zealand had marginally overtaken Australia with 57% now fully vaccinated and 16% partially vaccinated. Australia stands at 56% and 15%.
As Ross Clark pointed out in The Telegraph, “The world can finally see that zero Covid was a dead end which delayed but did not eliminate Covid, while drawing out the economic damage from repeated lockdowns…” The previous day, Gordon Raynor, in the same newspaper, pointed out that New Zealand now runs the risk of facing what we faced over a year ago. Paul Hunter, Professor of Health Protection at the University of East Anglia, took the view that “New Zealand could find all the sacrifices of the past year wasted if it doesn’t get its population immunised quickly enough.” Rather strangely, Scott Morrison has described Jacinda Ardern’s policy as “absurd”, adding that no country can “stay in the cave” forever. It is though rather hard to see the difference between what is happening in her country and what, until very recently, was happening in his. Indeed, the quarantine-free ‘bubble’ between the two countries was suspended until “at least 11.59pm on 12th October 2021,” and was actually lifted, in respect of New Zealand’s South Island only, at the beginning of this week.
In Auckland, the severe lock-down which started in mid-August has been extended for another two weeks at Level 3. These restrictions allow people to visit friends and families outside, as long as they remain socially distanced and masked, limit their gatherings to two household bubbles and keep to groups of 10 people or fewer. Health advisors had recommended a ‘circuit break’ of a fortnight at Level 4, but this advice was rejected by the government on the basis of the other implications of such restrictions. The ‘Super Saturday’ televised ‘Vaccathon’ last weekend was deemed a success with 130,000 vaccinated, according to an article in the New Zealand Herald. However, the fact that currently the only allowable vaccine in NZ is the Pfizer vaccine has also limited the numbers of those vaccinated.
In an article in The Economist in May this year, the author pointed out that whilst those Australians and New Zealanders who were in their countries had been able (at least when city or state lock-downs were not in force) to enjoy freedoms which here and in Europe had been denied to us, those citizens who had been shut out when the drawbridge went up had not found it easy to get back. This problem continues. In both countries, the quarantine hotels do not have enough places for those wanting to get into the country. New Zealand is allowing in foreign medical workers (although almost no others). But applying for a room in a quarantine hotel is a complete lottery. When more places are released everyone has to log on at 5pm Auckland time (this is 5am UK time) to make their application. However, the system then allocates applicants with a random place in the queue. Given that there are around 24,000 applicants for 3,000 places, most end up disappointed.
Those with family in either country have found the isolation policies frustrating, if not downright damaging. Elderly or sick relatives cannot be visited; weddings cannot be celebrated, grandchildren are growing up without being seen. Authoritarian, even draconian regulations were initially accepted in the face of a scary and unknown virus. As time has passed however, the early acceptance and smugness as they sat in their fortress countries and looked out at the chaos in the rest of the world has given way in many cases to anger and revolt. It has become very evident that vaccination roll-out in both countries needed to be speeded up. Australia is also now achieving this. As The Guardian reported on Monday, Melbourne, which has endured more time in lock-down than any other city in the world (260 days and counting as Megan Goldin, a lock-down-fatigued resident, wrote in an interesting article last Friday) is to be released from restrictions at the end of this week on the 22nd. Many restrictions remain and anyone travelling from other parts of the world to Oceania may just feel, as Kathy Lette expressed it in her article about a visit to her homeland, that they are travelling back in time – a time most of us are grateful to have put behind us.
Editor’s note: this article is an update of one published in Shaw Sheet on 7 October, 2021. We felt it was time to follow-up on Richard Carr’s article of 5 March - The Antipodean Paradox. Have the Aussies and Kiwis become victims of their own success? (only-connect.co.uk)