In a judgment delivered this week, New Zealand’s high court found that elements of the country’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) system, the cornerstone of our world-leading pandemic response, were unlawful. The decision dropped to a good deal of delight. One well-known conservative commentator wrote: “So the courts have found the lockdown was illegal, the vaccine mandate was illegal and MIQ was illegal, so can anyone name a major aspect of the response that hasn’t been found to be illegal?”
That response is predictably mischievous – none of those measures were ruled “illegal” – but it typifies the response. Perhaps the best-known of the conservative commentators involved wrote: “Jacinda Ardern has been found by the courts to have abused her powers by illegally preventing New Zealand citizens from leaving & returning home.” That isn’t what the high court found, but accurate reporting is hardly the point. In New Zealand the political right is fighting a relentless battle to rewrite the history of New Zealand’s pandemic success.
For almost two years New Zealanders kept the virus from breaching the border. After the first lockdown in March 2020, Covid-19 was eliminated and New Zealanders went about their lives more or less as normal. Public health experts calculate that if we suffered the same rate of Covid-19 deaths as the UK, up to 10,000 people would be dead. That’s not far short of the number of New Zealanders who perished in the second world war. Add to those life-saving efforts the fact that the economy grew 14% in the third quarter of 2020 – the highest rate ever. That same year, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her Labour party were re-elected in a landslide. Lockdowns are often given the credit for guaranteeing this success.
Alert level 4 in March 2020 saw New Zealanders “stop the spread”, to resurrect an old phrase. Covid-19 cases fell to zero in June. Even in the more infectious and deadlier Delta outbreak, a strict lockdown beginning in August 2021 functionally eliminated Delta come the end of summer.
But New Zealand’s primary defence was always MIQ. The system of isolation and quarantine for returning New Zealanders and visitors ensured that the virus rarely made it into the community. MIQers would spend two weeks in a hotel as a means of protecting the population. It was a necessary sacrifice and, in the scheme of things, a modest one. MIQ bought time for New Zealand to shelter as vaccines and antivirals were developed. The time it bought means that in the ongoing Omicron outbreak, with more than 90% of eligible adults vaccinated, the virus is proving no more fatal than the seasonal flu. This is something for which to thank MIQ, vaccine scientists, and public health providers (while acknowledging, of course, that even a single death from Omicron or the flu is a tragedy).
And yet the political right is determined to rewrite this success. In a recent interview Chris Luxon, the National party leader, called on the government to abandon the traffic light system. Given the events of 2020 and 2021, that’s a bizarre intervention. Why would you take the side of the virus and let it really rip? But Luxon’s intervention highlights the relentless campaign to undermine New Zealand’s success. Not because recent memory of the pandemic is faulty – polls as early as this year reinforced majority support for the government’s response – but because critics of the government and Ardern sense an opportunity for the current and inevitable Omicron outbreak to define every outbreak that was prevented.
This opportunity partly centres on criticism of the current spread and the pressure it places on an underfunded health system. The primary node of criticism, though, is the apparent threat to freedom and liberty that the government represents. In March and April countless stories were appearing criticising the red traffic light setting as having destroyed the hospitality sector. The loudest criticisms of MIQ, too, were often made by businesspeople keen to import workers without the need for limited MIQ spaces. Never mind the problem was, and, is the virus, not the efforts to control it. On a proper reading none of these criticisms – whether of MIQ or the traffic light settings – have much to do with freedom and liberty. These are calls for unrestrained commerce, the ability to trade no matter the circumstances.
In their analysis, the right to conduct commerce, no matter what, was more important than any public health imperative. The clown convoy that made its way to Wellington – occupying parliament, destroying the grounds and impinging on the rights of Thorndon’s residents – was the sharp end of this “do what I want” attitude. We cannot let these people win. So many lives were saved in 2020 and 2021. The economy thrived. The government’s quick action gave us the time to vaccinate, preparing us for the Omicron outbreak, for which other countries that let the virus rip and mutate were responsible. The high court did find that the lottery aspect of MIQ was unlawful, but it acknowledged that MIQ itself was lawful, and that it was a justified and proportionate policy response in a pandemic. We should not forget that.