Jane Clifton: Testing and enforcement holding back our freedom timeline

OPINION:

Vaccine hesitancy is an issue in opening our borders, but it is the failures in testing and enforcement that are most disillusioning.

When you don’t know where you’re going, say the sanctimonious, any road will get you there. They have a point. But in the increasing clamour for the Government to devise “a road map out of Covid”, the sanctimonious overlook the fact that we do know where we don’t want to go, and for now, that’s all we can realistically chart for.

The known unknowns are bad enough: whether all the vaccines protect against all the variants, whether children are becoming more susceptible and whether future variants will trump the vaccines we have.

The perversities various bureaucracies are layering on to these uncertainties make planning not just difficult but futile. The latest absurdity is that people who have been inoculated with the Indian-made Pfizer vaccine are now being banned from visiting European Union countries – not because their vaccine is faulty, but because the EU hasn’t yet got around to certifying it for its territories. Owing to trade brinkmanship, it’s in no hurry. Appallingly, countries blocking and undermining confidence in other countries’ vaccine progress have become legitimate instruments of hostile diplomacy. This might seem irrelevant to New Zealand’s road map, but this gamesmanship could catch on. This country has been getting vaccines from anywhere it can. Any other jurisdiction could at any time, for opportunistic reasons, decide a particular vaccine doesn’t comply with its rules and put New Zealanders on its red list.

The hawkish campaign by businesses and some commentators to bounce the Government into an open-border timetable is understandable. Everyone wants freedom, particularly those who want to travel and trade and, even more so, those who are sick of hearing those who want to travel and trade whingeing about not being able to do so.
The population should be substantially vaccinated by the year’s end, as should much of the developed world. Vaccination is the best weapon we have and once it has been substantially deployed, it should be a case of “what the bloody hell are we waiting for?” to paraphrase the famous Tourism Australia ad. Unfortunately, it’s a sentiment our neighbours over the ditch may have expressed prematurely.

Mutant cousins

Unhappily, the coronavirus family has its own plans, which it won’t share with the rest of us in a timely fashion. Some experts now warn that other countries’ partial lifting of social-distancing restrictions is creating the ideal conditions for the virus to optimise its survival chances. With just enough of each population still unvaccinated, or only partially vaccinated, Covid cousins will experiment and party, these experts warn. New and indomitable variants will emerge, they say. On the whole, the sanctimonious are much easier on the ear.

The other road map-buster is vaccine hesitancy. There’s a pessimistic but not implausible prediction that up to 30 per cent of people here will refuse the jab. New Zealand’s, probably unavoidably, sluggish access to vaccines has provided ideal growing conditions for anti-vax propaganda. The Government has boldly started enforcing a “no jab, no job” rule on border workers, but it’s hard to foresee it expanding that to compulsory vaccinations against people’s will.

Divisive debate about the ethics of penalising refusal is unavoidable. Britain is preparing a “Covid passport” system. We already require visitors to undergo testing and/or vaccine authentication before they arrive, so – if our bureaucrats ever find a way of actually enforcing it – this will inevitably become a form of Covid passport.

That means two citizenries: the jabs and the jab-nots. The unvaccinated will be denied travel and the right to work in certain jobs. This will doubtless make some of them all the more militant, not least the anti-maskers who discount both the laws of physics and of biology to insist that even a surgical-grade barrier does not reduce the spread and range of infection. Again, even the sanctimonious are more fun at parties.

The Government is also, perhaps unduly, guided by recent market research, which found 53 per cent of New Zealanders were in no hurry for a human “gypsy day”. As recent attitudinal surveys here and abroad show, there’s even a solid cohort who want restrictions to continue indefinitely and, preferably, expand.

Some of these people are physically vulnerable, others perhaps a bit neurotic, and the rest – possibly the majority – are simply bossy-boots who hate to see others having a good time. But they all vote and seem to be about equal in number to those who want to fling off the masks right now, snog strangers in the tinned-goods aisle and crank up their air miles.

Faffing about

But perhaps the biggest deal-breaker for a freedom timetable is one the Government would not admit publicly: 18 months into the crisis, this country is not yet on top of testing and enforcement to protect those living here, let alone to cope with more folk coming and going.

One of the most disillusioning let-downs of the entire pandemic is the Government – having belatedly decided all border workers must be vaccinated, as the experts have been imploring – saying it cannot muster the logistical capacity to complete that until October. The definition of “urgent” and “compulsory” must have changed while we weren’t paying attention.

Equally depressing is the argy-bargy over saliva testing. Some brands of these tests at least match the accuracy of invasive nasal swabs but cost less and work faster. The Government and/or officials rejected one such test in favour of another, which, it turns out, cannot yet be accurately processed in our labs. Auckland Airport, among other global users of the former test, is going great guns with it. Officials are still faffing about with the latter test and would have us believe that spit tests are sub-optimal – despite repeated expert advice that they’re urgently needed. Doubtless, the Official Information Act will one day yield the reasons for such perverse decisions. Meanwhile, those whose jobs mandate regular testing will confirm: the highly sensitive meninges of one’s upper hooter were not designed to withstand constant prodding.

The worst setback for lobbyists for a post-Covid plan has been Australia, which, having declared itself ready to get cracking on a plan, has had to lock down New South Wales after a fresh outbreak. A road map that starts with a ruddy great U-turn is no use to anyone. Although, to be fair, the sanctimonious would get a bloody-minded kick out of it.

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