Thomas Coughlan: The border will open despite Omicron


The pandemic’s effect on our political metabolism was on full display this week when the Omicron variant managed to force what had hitherto been unthinkable: a massive U-turn from both major parties.

Less than a week prior, on the last sitting day of the year, both were stridently committed to reopening the border (National on slightly different terms to Labour).

By Tuesday, that had changed and both parties – representing 70 per cent of the vote on current polling – U-turned to back a delayed border opening.

It’s worthwhile remembering that this would be unthinkable in ordinary times; National had turned reopening the border into one of its tentpole political issues (its slogan: a lottery of human misery was beginning to grate on the nerves of the pundit class – a sure sign the strategy is working). Labour had finally caved, deciding it was time to tentatively reopen the country – indeed, the party had made a rare commitment to a reopening date for travellers from Australia.

A U-turn on this scale would be fairly unusual in normal times – but to have both parties turn at once is – though the word has become trite in these times – unprecedented.

It also speaks to the outright sensibleness of the decision. Both parties have clearly decided it’s worth swallowing the justified rage of Kiwis stranded overseas to get a better picture of what Omicron has in store. It’s worth the delay.

The decision was revealing for exploring just how wedded the Government is to its current suppression strategy; it U-turned on the border, not giving the kibosh to elimination.

The Government was lucky it had already weathered the political storm of walking away from its elimination strategy in September. Had it not done so, Chris Hipkins would likely have had to promise further lockdowns when the Omicron variant inevitably escapes from MIQ. It’s hard to see Aucklanders, just emerging from one lockdown, being overly excited about the prospect of further lockdowns in the new year – lockdowns that would be even longer and possibly more restrictive to combat Omicron.

The cost of further measures, it appears, is simply too great.

The Government is fortunate to have already made the decision to walk away from elimination, given its hardly the debate any political party would want to have heading into summer.

The most difficult two questions going forward relate to the conjoined decisions around the booster campaign and when to definitively reopen the border, given its fair to assume the dates for reopening previously announced are now very much up in the air.

When it became clear in September that both major parties were pursuing a policy of gradual liberalisation of infection prevention measures, Labour differentiated itself by moving slower than National (although both ended up in much the same place).

Next year, both parties will have to grapple with the same question around boosters. Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine will offer protection against severe disease caused by Omicron, but it’s said you need three for best effectiveness.

Having mortgaged much political capital in Auckland to keep the border up while the vaccination campaign was ongoing in under-vaccinated regions – the Government now has to ask itself whether it can afford to take a similarly sluggish, accommodative approach to boosters.

If Omicron becomes the dominant variant overseas, as seems fairly certain, the fissure between those who have been vaccinated and boosted and want to open up, and those who are taking their time will open up yet again.

Is it right or fair to continue denying overseas Kiwis the right to re-enter their own country, while domestic Kiwis dither about whether they’ll get a further dose of the vaccine? That’s a difficult question, but it’s one Cabinet will have to ask itself early in the new year.

The Government may have its hand forced by continued litigation around MIQ (the case brought by Grounded Kiwis will be heard early next year). These cases would force it to turn to Parliament to strengthen the legal regime underpinning MIQ (have fun with that), or to take a more humane approach to MIQ exemptions, which, given Omicron’s infectiousness and international prevalence, would likely render the whole system irrelevant anyway.

The latter seems the most likely, and signals, once again, the irreversible march towards a more permissive approach to Covid-19.

The Government and Opposition’s Omicron Kumbaya was significant for showing that both still consider the threat of Covid significant enough to trump quotidian political embarrassment concerning U-turns, but that significance should not be read as an example of both parties walking back on commitments to open up and liberalise.

2021 was the year of the vaccine, 2022 will be the year of reconnection.

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