Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s first words at Labour’s caucus retreat yesterday was to remark on her delight that New Zealanders had now enjoyed two summers in a row during the Covid-19 pandemic with little to disrupt them.
But her job for the day was not to bask in the glow of those delivered summers but to warn of the metaphorical winter of Omicron and New Zealand facing its biggest wave of Covid-19 yet.
Ardern’s main mission on Thursday was not to set out the nuts and bolts of the plan for what would happen when Omicron took hold, but instead to prepare people mentally for that time – and the possibility it could be for a long time.
It was part of an exercise to ready people to accept life with Covid-19 and all the inconveniences it brought.
Aucklanders will be much further along the path of accepting life with Covid-19. Three months of lockdowns has shown them the alternative and they do not want a repeat of that.
Little of what they heard yesterday would have alarmed them.
But the rest of the country has some way to go in accepting that high case numbers and the risk of catching Covid-19 is not necessarily something to live in fear of.
Delta has done some of the hard work of changing people’s attitudes to Covid-19. People have learned they simply have to get on with it.
But Ardern was trying to deliver reality (and reassurance) to those people still shocked to hear about case numbers of more than 100 or 200 a day, and those who think that because Delta cases have dropped into the 20s we may be near the end.
Omicron has not even started. For Aucklanders, the gold in Ardern’s statement was that large city-wide lockdowns were a thing of the past, as were boundaries around different regions.
She noted vaccination rates would now protect people from the worst of it, and Omicron was so transmissible that lockdowns would create more pain than benefit.
Ardern delivered some answers to the questions being asked. We know now just how fast, and how widely the Government will act once Omicron spreads: all of the country will move to red within a day or two.
But she also left many questions hanging. People have been told to prepare to isolate at home for a period of time with no notice, and bosses to work out how they would cope with reduced staff or periods of closure.
Exactly what they are preparing for remains unclear – there were no specifics on exactly who would be required to isolate or how long for, when businesses might have to close shop, or how people would be cared for at home or know when they needed more medical attention than a Panadol.
If those details do not come in the next week or two, as Ardern has said, criticism will be warranted and Omicron may beat her. But for the time being the claims by Act leader David Seymour and National leader Christopher Luxon that Ardern had no plan is political hyperbole.
Thursday was about preparing the soil rather than a tsunami of detail – Ardern knows the value in giving a few simple messages. Yesterday those were to get boosters, stock up on supplies, and do not panic.
Much of the plan has already been forged by Delta, although it will be adapted for Omicron.
It was Grant Robertson who spelled out in blunt terms what Ardern’s mission of yesterday was.
He said that until now the Government had largely taken care of Covid-19. It had done what it could to prepare people to live with it, and to soften the brunt of it. It would continue to offer some support for businesses, and on testing and vaccinations but now people also had to look after themselves more.
There was an element of the old story about the little boy who put his finger in the dyke in Ardern’s message yesterday. The ending will be different.
In the boy’s case, the townspeople arrived the next day and fixed the dyke. In Ardern’s, she is simply going to have to take her finger out and hope people have followed her advice and are ready.
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