It would have been with some relief that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shucked off some of the most invidious elements of the Covid-19 response by announcing an end to vaccine passes and to vaccine mandates in some occupations.
It was done two years to the day that Ardern stood at the same podium and announced that New Zealand would be going into a strict lockdown, back on March 23 2020.
There will inevitably be some qualms and fear about what this will mean for the vulnerable, the immuno-suppressed, the elderly. Ardern emphasised that was the reason the mandates remained for the health workforce in particular.
But acceptance will be more widespread than the fear. The pause button is off: people can go to watch sports and to festivals again, harking back to that halcyon Covid-19 free summer of 2020.
It is the end of a gruelling seven months. We initially had to live with mandates and vaccine passes and gathering limits so we didn’t have to live with Covid-19.
There is little point in living with all of them together.
We are living with Covid-19 and we have got used to it a lot more quickly than people may have expected.There hasn’t exactly been much choice.
But the passes and mandates, more than any other measure, were responsible for stretching – and tearing – the unity that was so critical in Ardern’s handling of the pandemic’s first two years.
If any acknowledgement was needed of that, it was in words the Prime Minister did not use once in her 22-minute long speech on Wednesday: “The team of five million.”
The phrase was in almost every press conference and interview Ardern did throughout 2020 and for a good part of 2021. It has now disappeared from her lexicon.
It became tedious fairly quickly, but its sentiment was then eroded first by MIQ and then by the mandates and traffic light system, with different rules for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.All of those things were effective. But they also all came at a cost.
Lockdowns took a hefty toll, but were time-limited and affected everybody.
The no jab no job mandates and vaccination passes system affected far fewer people but dragged on for months.
For some people it completely changed their lives: they lost jobs and incomes. It was over those measures that an ‘us and them’ mentality swept up. The vaccinated and the unvaccinated.
It was inevitable the group they affected would get increasingly disgruntled. It was also inevitable that many of the vaccinated would also start to feel uncomfortable about those who were losing jobs, or unable to attend a family dinner simply because they did not want to get vaccinated.
Even Ardern had said, prior to Delta and the decision to use vaccination passes, that she was not comfortable with a system that gave the vaccinated more freedoms than the vaccinated.
A few weeks later she rushed through a law putting vaccine certificates into place under urgency and with zero public submissions. Zero.
Nor would she consider any other propositions put up by the likes of Act leader David Seymour, who suggested regular testing of unvaccinated workers as an alternative to sacking them. That is exactly what many businesses will now be looking up at down as they decide on their own vaccination policies.
It is little wonder those affected felt they had not been listened to.
The PM has tacitly acknowledged the cost of that herself – in an interview with Newstalk ZB’s Francesca Rudkin at the weekend, Ardern said she would not change those decisions because they had worked. However, her regret was that she could not bring more people along with her in those last six months.
Ardern prefaced her announcement on Wednesday with a lengthy reminiscing on the earlier years of the pandemic.
Those long years are something most people do not want to be reminded of, but they were the years the PM was totally in control of Covid-19 and the country knew it.
The wheels got a lot more wobbly in the last six months – and that will be both the period the PM will reflect the most on and which she hopes ends up expunged from the national memory in favour of the more nostalgic, rose-tinted views of the first two years.
The decisions of Wednesday are something of a full stop on the Covid-19 era – but the full stop is only in pencil so it can be erased.
They came with the warning that mandates and passes and even lockdowns had been put on ice but could be deployed again if another variant came along and they were needed.
The Prime Minister will be hoping more than anyone that does not happen. If it does, it will be a massive political battle to reinstate those measures.
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