Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has brushed off “dangerous” calls to re-open New Zealand’s borders to visitors.
She said yesterday that this is “a world where the virus is escalating not slowing, and not even peaking in some countries yet, where cases exceed ten million globally, and deaths half a million, where countries are extending and returning to lockdown.”
She added: “All of the while, we get to enjoy weekend sport, go to restaurants and bars, our workplaces are open, and we can gather in whatever numbers we like.”
“These are hard-won gains, and we have as a government no intention of squandering them,” Ardern said.
“The idea that we should open our border in this environment has a price, and that price could be a second wave of Covid-19 in our country at worst – at best, added restrictions for the rest of us.”
Ardern is one of the top performers of the Covid-19 crisis so far, with the country having recorded just 22 deaths, after locking down its borders on 19 March, and the first to clearly articulate a full “elimination” strategy. Back then, there was a ferocious debate about whether New Zealand’s elimination or Sweden’s soft herd immunity were the way forward. There is no debate anymore. As George Ajjan writes, whatever way you slice it – the death rate compared to Nordic counterparts, the economic impact, the limited number who have developed anti-bodies – the Swedish approach has no good qualities to show for it; it failed. Even Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell now admits that with the highest death rate among over 80s of any country, the ‘shielding’ operation did not work and too many have died.
Sweden has been excluded from a Nordic Travel Zone which includes Finland, Denmark and Norway. The Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said the decision “hurts”, but it’s only prudent considering the WHO consider Sweden to still be experiencing community transmission, with 12-13 per cent of tests coming back positive. Why should the rest of the Nordic world throw away the progress they have made because Sweden pursued a deeply flawed strategy out of sync with the region?
Which brings us to the Scottish and English border. While the outbreaks Scotland and England have so far suffered are not too dissimilar in terms of excess deaths (Scotland 41 per cent, England 52 per cent), both being in the very top tier worldwide, there is undoubtedly faster progress being made now in reducing the number of cases in Scotland than England. If Professor Devi Sridhar of the University of Edinburgh is correct that Scotland’s “biggest challenge” will soon be the importation of cases from elsewhere, it is only right that the First Minister follows best international practice by considering measures to restrict road access from England into Scotland, or quarantine those who do travel here.
Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw has foolishly called for Nicola Sturgeon to “rule out” that possibility, in a display of hyper-ventilating unionism, saying it would “drive a wedge” between the two nations. I think the importation of cases from one part of the UK into another, thus undermining hugely costly lockdown efforts, is a bigger concern than sore feelings right now. Just as a spike in cases has led Leicester to be put into lockdown again separate from the rest of England, there is no logical reason beyond Tory dogma that the same should not be considered in the reverse – an area doing better at suppressing the virus limiting exposure to part of the country doing not so well. The increase in road traffic at various points on the Scottish-English border since the lockdown began to be eased shows that the possibility of cases moving from south to north is real.
Of course any such restrictions could become a legal mire if the UK Government sought to challenge the Scottish Government’s authority in introducing them. Boris Johnson’s plans to ease the foreign travel 14-day quarantine on 6 July is another area which could adversely affect Scottish Government efforts to eliminate the virus, an aim that it is not clear the Prime Minister shares. Sturgeon has said there are “no plans” to restrict movement from England to Scotland, but has left the possibility open in the future if the countries significantly “diverge” in terms of infection rates. There is then the possibility of open political conflict over Covid-19 strategies between Bute House and Downing Street, something Sturgeon and Johnson have both sought to avoid so far. But if Sturgeon is serious about elimination and wants to make-up some of the lost ground with the best international performers like Ardern, who has single-mindedly pursued a strategy of elimination from the start, she should not fear such a conflict with a disastrously reckless PM.
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