Audrey Young: Jacinda Ardern reinforces Govt competence around Covid

It is no reflection on Judith Collins that her first questions to Jacinda Ardern when Parliament resumed on Tuesday this week was about the lack of certainty over when Covid-19 vaccines were going to arrive.

Collins had no way of knowing that Ardern actually had a fair idea of when the vaccines were going to arrive and would hold a surprise press conference yesterday to announce the first injection into the arm would be next weekend. It’s a massive milestone.

One of clear targets the Opposition has had on the Government’s Covid-19 management has been the gap between its assurance three months ago that New Zealand would be at the front of the queue for vaccines and their non-appearance – and wooliness about when they would arrive.

That political target has disappeared assuming, as promised by Ardern, that the vaccines begin to arrive next week and are administered competently and fairly.

Yesterday’s announcement was the culmination of an exemplary exercise by the Government in managing expectations, of under-promising and over-delivering.

Covid minister Chris Hipkins and Ardern have not only downplayed any suggestion that the vaccines might come early, they have been critical of those suggesting it might or should happen earlier for border workers at risk of exposure to the UK and South African variants.

They frequently warned against critics indulging in “vaccine nationalism,” pointing out that other countries had a greater need for it.

They have been publicly skeptical about comparison with Australia’s decision to bring forward its vaccination plan by a month.

As recently as Wednesday this week in Parliament both Ardern and Hipkins noted that Australia’s vaccines had not yet arrived and it had not started vaccinating.

It is, however, almost certain that the advance timetable for New Zealand’s vaccine would not have happened without Australia advancing its own programme.

From Pfizer’s perspective, it made no sense for the New Zealand batch to be part of a different batch to Australia’s. While the Government has never been willing to acknowledge a link, Scott Morrison’s agreement with Pfizer to start earlier production has allowed New Zealand to benefit as well.

Ardern and Hipkins have been willing to wear the uncertainty, knowing that the announcement of an early vaccine for New Zealand border workers would more than compensate for short-term doubts over their control of the situation.

The original timetable had been for the first courses of vaccines by the end of March.

The news of the advance delivery has reinforced the Government’s competence in handling Covid-19, seen most recently in the response to community cases originating at the Pullman hotel.

And there was good news on the economic front earlier in the week.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson pointed to lower projections of net debt to GDP in 2034 falling from 48 per cent in the pre-election forecasts to 36.5 per cent – amounting to $60 billion less debt.

That is on top of the incredible fact that GDP activity in the September quarter was actually higher than pre-Covid – which according to BNZ economists is something equalled only by China, Taiwan and Ireland -and that the unemployment rate fell to 4.9 per cent last week

It is what you would call a good start to the year and a great week for the Government and has left Collins with little to say expect “congratulations.”

There are a few Covid-19 related issues that National could still prosecute.

The Auditor General clearly has concerns about the level of transparency surrounding the massive amounts of money being spent or earmarked in the $62 billion Covid Response and Recovery Fund.

This week the Office of the Auditor issued a second report on the CRRF – although it is not alleging any impropriety-stating that under the current presentation of information “it would difficult, if not impossible, for Parliament and the public to track how the Covid-19 funding decisions (by initiative) have been assigned to the various funding authorities.”

And National’s Covid-19 response spokesman, Chris Bishop, is clearly not completely satisfied that Green MP Ricardo Menendez March did not get some special treatment from Government officials by landing a room in MIQ, having left for Mexico before Christmas without having booked one.

But compared to the public health issue around a national vaccination campaign, they are small beer.

Jacinda Ardern declared 2021 the year of the vaccine which means it must be done with as few problems as possible, not least to make the Opposition as irrelevant as possible.

So far, she is winning.

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