7 October 2021
By Lynda Goetz
“Australia’s borders are currently closed”, it says very clearly on the Australian Government website. This has been the case since 20th March last year, 2020, in response to the Covid crisis. Borders were closed in New Zealand at almost exactly the same time and have also remained closed ever since, as both countries pursued a zero Covid strategy. Australia’s Prime Minister abandoned this at the beginning of September. On Tuesday this week, things changed in New Zealand too. Their Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that the country would no longer be pursuing its elimination policy, as the latest seven-week lockdown had failed to keep out the Delta variant.
Some have viewed New Zealand’s approach to the virus as a ‘spectacular success’. True, it has had one of the lowest rates of cases and deaths in the world. Here, many have wondered why the UK did not likewise shut its borders back in March 2020. The problems with so doing are however self-evident. We live in an interconnected world. Trade and tourism are very much part of the way we all live. Countries like Australia and New Zealand are more able to shut out the rest of the world. A small island like the UK could never have done so without immense destruction to our economy. We are not self-sufficient.
The whole idea of lockdowns has been a massive global experiment, never before attempted on such a scale in democratic countries. Epidemiologists and modellers have acclaimed it a success. The long-term costs in terms of not only the economy, but also in terms of education and other health issues remain to be assessed. It is likely they never really will be, although there is some evidence that countries which applied less draconian restrictions, such as Sweden, have not come out a great deal worse overall when the whole picture is reviewed. For those countries which have not entirely closed their borders, things are, albeit slowly, getting back to normal. In terms of travel, Europe has been rather quicker with this than the UK. Here our traffic light system has, to a great degree, put the brakes on freedom of movement. Travel to so-called ‘red’ countries (i.e. with high infection rates) necessitates hotel quarantine on return to this country at not inconsiderable cost. Costs are also incurred in purchasing the legally required tests necessary on return from any country, although these are now being relaxed for those who are ‘double-jabbed’.
Vaccination rates in this country, according to the latest figures from Our World in Data, are now over 66% fully vaccinated with another 5.83% partially vaccinated. In Australia, the number fully vaccinated is 46.95% and in New Zealand, only 43.3%. In both these countries vaccination roll-out has been far slower than in Europe and other developed countries. Portugal, which has roughly double the population of New Zealand, has managed to have 85.2% of its population fully vaccinated. Many are now questioning the wisdom of Jacinda Ardern’s approach.
As Ross Clark points out in The Telegraph, ‘The world can finally see that zero Covid was a dead end which delayed but did not eliminate Covid, while drawing out the economic damage from repeated lockdowns…’ The previous day, Gordon Raynor, in the same newspaper, pointed out that New Zealand now runs the risk of facing what we faced over a year ago. Paul Hunter, Professor of Health Protection at the University of East Anglia, took the view that “New Zealand could find all the sacrifices of the past year wasted if it doesn’t get its population immunised quickly enough.” Rather strangely, Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, has described Jacinda Ardern’s policy as ‘absurd’, adding that no country can ‘stay in the cave’ forever. It is though rather hard to see the difference between what is happening in her country and what, until very recently, was happening in his. Indeed, even the quarantine-free ‘bubble’ between the two countries is currently suspended until “at least 11.59pm on 12th October 2021,” according to the Australian government website.
In an article in The Economist in May this year, the author pointed out that whilst those Australians and New Zealanders who were in their countries had been able (at least when city or state lockdowns were not in force) to enjoy freedoms which here and in Europe had been denied to us, those citizens who had been shut out when the drawbridge went up had not found it easy to get back. This problem continues. In both countries, the quarantine hotels do not have enough places for those wanting to get into the country. New Zealand is allowing in foreign medical workers (although almost no others), but applying for a room in a quarantine hotel is a complete lottery. When more places are released everyone has to log on at 5pm Auckland time (this is 5am UK time) to make their application. However, the system then allocates applicants with a random place in the queue. Given that there are around 24,000 applicants for 3,000 places, most end up disappointed.
Those with family in either country have found the isolation policies frustrating, if not downright damaging. Elderly or sick relatives cannot be visited; weddings cannot be celebrated, grandchildren are growing up without being seen. Authoritarian, even draconian regulations were initially accepted in the face of a scary and unknown virus. As time has passed however, the early acceptance and smugness as they sat in their fortress countries and looked out at the chaos in the rest of the world has given way in many cases to anger and revolt. It has become very evident that vaccination rollout in both countries needs to be speeded up. Australia is already now achieving this. In the meantime, anyone travelling from other parts of the world to Oceania may just feel, as Kathy Lette expressed it in her article about a visit to her homeland, that they are travelling back in time – a time most of us are grateful to have put behind us.
Cover page photo: Axios.com