New Zealand’s COVID-19 response is at the crossroads. Omicron means that, for the first time, catching COVID-19 has moved from a remote possibility to a probability for most New Zealanders. Omicron spreads much faster, but is also milder than any previous variant. That means it is time to reassess our approach to COVID-19.
A reassessment is also timely because fatigue from two years of restrictions and control on New Zealanders’ lives is taking a heavy toll. The open revolt occurring outside Parliament in Wellington is only the most concentrated form of frustrations that more and more New Zealanders feel.
New Zealand’s COVID-19 response has been driven by fear. In March 2020 we were told that tens of thousands could die and, although that scenario has not played out in any comparable country, it has never been rescinded. The fear has led to control, with nearly every aspect of New Zealanders’ lives dominated by restrictions on what they are allowed to do. With each passing week, this approach feels expensive, forlorn, and dictatorial.
Other countries around the world are simply moving on. They are dropping their COVID-19 management regimes, ending government controls and letting people take back control of their own lives. Those countries are at a different stage in the pandemic, having had their Omicron waves arrive, peak, and subside; however, we should still be asking ourselves whether our policies stack up for where we are now.
Move On is ACT’s fourth paper during the COVID-19 pandemic, following A Wellbeing Approach to COVID in August 2020, COVID 2.0 in March 2021, and COVID 3.0 in October 2021. In each case, ACT has applied sound public policy analysis to the challenges New Zealand faced at the time. Move On follows this tradition by applying cost-benefit analysis to each of the current interventions and asking if they still make sense for dealing with Omicron.
It finds that, given Omicron is much less virulent (milder) than previous variants, and far more infectious (spreads faster), few if any of the strategies employed to suppress the virus make sense any more. At best, they will slow the spread but fail to change the outcome that many if not most New Zealanders will get COVID-19 and, if they are vaccinated, it will be a mild to moderate illness.
Move On concludes that it’s time to get control of our lives back. Our current response is not a response to Omicron, it is a hangover from fighting earlier, more virulent variants with lower vaccination rates. It is time to move on.