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Covid crisis needs tough policy response

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 17 March 2020

At our Initiative staff meetings over the past two months, Covid-19 already dominated our discussions. Startling as they are, we are not surprised by the events of the past days.

If the Government moves quickly and confidently to beef up its border controls, testing regime and quarantine measures then, given our limited number of cases now, there is still a slim chance to avoid a national health disaster.

We must stamp out the virus at all cost in New Zealand. Maybe it is not likely, but it is possible that New Zealand could remain largely Covid-19 free.

Protected by geographic isolation, with a big moat around our islands and with our low population density, we have a chance. It is only a chance – but it is a fighting chance.

And that means we must fight. If we do not fight, we will be like Italy in just a few weeks.

Therefore, we fully support the Government’s decision to introduce strict travel rules. The failure of other countries in Europe and North America to control or even monitor their domestic outbreaks left the New Zealand Government no other choice.

As tough as the travel measures introduced last weekend are, they will be futile if not coupled with equally tough measures within New Zealand. To avoid a future nationwide lockdown of the kind seen in Italy, Spain or France, we should enact strict local lockdowns wherever cases occur.

We should also limit the virus’ chances to spread by pre-emptively limiting social contacts across the country for the coming weeks. The Government urgently needs to give clear guidance on whether this means we should cancel all events above 50 people and tell employers to send everyone home who can work from home.

Most importantly, the Government must learn the lesson of putting in place a comprehensive testing regime and realise earlier the constraints on the national health system while aiming to increase its capacity over time.

Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan successfully flattened their epidemic curves by rigorous and comprehensive testing coupled with self-isolation and good hygiene.

The New Zealand Government has announced its support package. It is a welcome step to help the country’s most vulnerable. It will not be the end of it.

We expect the Initiative’s policy discussions over the coming months to be entirely consumed by Covid-19 and the Government’s response. I would be surprised if the scheduled election goes ahead. In fact, we think it should not.

These are tough times for all of us. But these times also demand rigorous policy thinking so that New Zealand can get through this crisis. This is what the Initiative does best.

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