Andrew Barnes: What its like living with Delta in the UK

OPINION:

It was pleasing to see the Government begin to enunciate a roadmap for New Zealand out of the current restrictions last week. Governments have to be cautious – but we also need to ensure that they draw upon global experience as part of the process. We have educated ourselves and our whānau to be scared of Covid – often using out-of-date data or experiences to justify our position – and our fixation on elimination as a strategy has led to the latest New Zealand lockdown, just as the rest of the world has opened up.

Unlike many commentators, I have experienced this pandemic from both sides. I have experienced lockdown in New Zealand, have isolated in the UK, and have had to travel three times between New Zealand and UK for family and business reasons. We have experienced the good (Hamilton) and the bad (the Pullman Hotel) of MIQ, as well as difficulties posed by the implementation of different testing regimes across different countries.

Indeed, as I write this, I have just finished self-isolating at home after my 14-year old daughter tested positive for Covid. I am not sure who suffered the greater impact. She at least had an excuse to sit with her iPad messaging her friends and watching movies all day, whilst I had to sit indoors or in the garden rather than getting out and enjoying the UK summer.

I say “enjoying” because contrary to Professor Sir David Skegg’s comments that the UK has heavy social and work restrictions with enforced mask use and a fear of contagion (ironic given the events of the last 24 hours in New Zealand) – the UK is actually frighteningly normal.

The high incidence of cases in the UK reflects not only the removal of restrictions but that teenagers and young adults are not getting vaccinated as rapidly as older age groups (in the UK, anyone over 18 can get a Covid vaccine on demand). This is due, in part, to the threat to the health of young adults being comparatively small.

The average young Brit seems to have accepted COVID and moved on.

Contrary to Sir David’s remarks on July 19, there is no longer any legal requirement to wear face coverings in indoor settings or in public transport – unlike in New Zealand – but many UK companies and shops do request you to wear one. Pubs and restaurants are open, as are theatres – a weekend ago, we attended a large classic car rally at Goodwood – and again, contrary to New Zealand, Britons are once again enjoying the opportunity to travel internationally, without quarantine, once vaccinated.

So the picture painted in New Zealand is often that we are in a better position socially and economically as a consequence of our elimination strategy, but unfortunately that is no longer the case. To an extent, Sir David’s misstating of the restrictions offshore indicates a very inward-focused perspective.

It is not difficult to draw similar comparisons to the proposals for our release and necessary reopening. Focusing on getting a first jab “in people’s arms” and lengthening the gap between vaccinations were all modelled and identified offshore months ago, and have been proven to work.

Options around MIQ / home isolation have also all been experimented with offshore, and there is a myriad of border control processes which the New Zealand Government could adapt far more rapidly than we are apparently intending to do.

Sir David used the analogy of WWII and referenced Churchill (ironically in the week his picture was taken down in Parliament) – so will I. Churchill said after the victory at El-Alamein (in which New Zealand soldiers distinguished themselves):

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

We can say the same now of the pandemic. New Zealand has, by a combination of luck and geography, been able to adopt an elimination strategy. Sir David is unrealistic in his comments “that others could have pursued the elimination strategy”. In this he has, I’m afraid, poor understanding of economic realities.

New Zealand has an economy in which we largely export raw materials (in containers) and import limited goods (in containers). We supply the vast majority of all of our own food and power and we have a small population surrounded by water and lots of it.

For us, closing the border was relatively simple. If we contrast that with the UK, also an island, but with 12 times the population, you can see that the practical aspects of border closures were not open to the UK Government.

When France closed its border briefly after Brexit, very rapidly thousands of lorries backed up either side of the Channel because of the integrated nature of supply chains ranging from manufactured goods through to pharmaceuticals, and reflecting that the UK is not self-sufficient in food – with produce being shipped daily from around the world. You can see the potential impact on the UK economy today as a consequence of what is referred to here as the “pingdemic”. This is a requirement for people to isolate and provide a negative Covid test after being in close proximity to someone testing positive. This led to the emptying of some supermarket shelves due to a chronic shortage of lorry drivers (historically many of them were from Eastern Europe) and disruption to logistics networks.

A simple closure of the border (as we were able to do in New Zealand) would have led to adverse impacts on manufacturing but also to shortages of food and drugs. In this respect, the UK is no different from most other industrialised nations.

Which is why coming to terms with Covid is so critical. The UK has to learn to live with it because it never can be either eradicated or kept out.

Which leads to the challenge now facing New Zealand. We have had a relatively “good” pandemic (so far), but our reaction has been to close the borders and to sit congratulating ourselves on the result.

In reality, we’ve been lucky. Despite multiple failures, as at the Port of Tauranga, or inconsistent protocols in MIQ (if they existed at all) and poor levels of vaccination of border workers, we have avoided another significant community outbreak until now. The experience of Australia, where arguably the border restrictions and quarantine regulations were more onerous than in New Zealand, prepared us for how quickly situations can change.

Now, with the Delta variant in the community, we have to hope that the lessons learned painfully overseas have already been transferred into preparedness at our hospitals and social services – with capacity for sustained high levels of testing. Here again, the UK is interesting. There is no doubt that its initial reaction was deficient – if not completely inept – especially as regards releasing Covid-infected patients from hospitals back into care homes. But the current Covid and genome sequencing capability is world-class. I was talking to colleagues on Monday as I took my daughter to a drive-through testing centre near Guildford and they were shocked how quick (less than five minutes) the whole process was.

To continue the WWII analogy, in the dark days following the Dunkirk evacuation it looked as though the Germans had won the war, yet it was the British who celebrated VE day in August 1945.

We cannot be complacent and declare that our strategy is vindicated, yet. Unlike other countries where vaccinations are leading to a reduction in Covid – when we open the border, vaccinated or not, there will be an increase in Covid cases in New Zealand. We have to come to terms with this. There are other Covid complications impacting the young now surfacing in the US, which policymakers in New Zealand need to already be thinking about. We are right to be cautious, but we cannot continue to be scared. Equally, we have to learn some lessons – which others have learned out of experience or necessity.

The outside world has changed. As a consequence of Covid, we see significant societal changes; in commuting, working patterns, home and reduced-hour working, changes in shopping, a rejuvenation of local communities over the city centre, yet we are still thinking in terms of bringing people into Auckland City rather than developing local communities where people work and socialise – with all the attendant problems that creates for our environment.

We have no legislative proposals for reduced-hours working – even the Americans have seen a bill dropped into Congress to reduce the working week to 32 hours.

The big danger to New Zealand comes not from Covid itself but in that we are being left behind as the world changes around us.

Perhaps given I write this from the UK, I may use an analogy from British history – that of King Canute commanding the tide to turn. We can believe that we can hold back the Covid tide, but in the end we will get our feet wet.

– Andrew Barnes is a businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of Perpetual Guardian and is best known in New Zealand for championing the four-day week.

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