Leader's Address - COVID and Divided Society

Tena koutou. Today I want to talk to you about Covid, about vaccinations, and about mandates. But first I want to address the elephant in the room: our increasingly divided society.

Tena koutou. Today I want to talk to you about Covid, about vaccinations, and about mandates. But first I want to address the elephant in the room: our increasingly divided society.

I entered politics because I wanted to help create a society where Kiwis can get ahead.

Where if you’re willing to put in an honest day’s work, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.

That’s my vision for New Zealand – a society of opportunity.

But what we’re experiencing under Labour is a society divided.

The Prime Minister talks about the team of five million, but actually she leads the most divisive Government in recent memory.

Renters versus landlords. Business owners versus workers. Farmers versus cities. Kiwis at home versus those stuck abroad.

The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.

What we are seeing outside Parliament, and the reaction to it, is the culmination of underlying issues that have been rumbling along in our communities for some time.

It’s driven by Covid and vaccine mandates, yes, but the frustrations shared by many Kiwis are also driven by a Government that seems to be stalling.

The cost of living is through the roof.

The dream of home ownership is turning into a nightmare.

Long-term benefit dependency is skyrocketing.

Then add to the mix Labour’s approach to Covid, which relies far too heavily on controlling all aspects of everyday life, rather than using tools like rapid antigen tests to manage risk and give Kiwis more personal responsibility.

No wonder Kiwis are frustrated.

Two years ago, when the Prime Minister made the wise decision to put New Zealand into a strict lockdown, we were united in our resolve. We came together to combat Covid-19 and we felt good about it.

What was simple then is messy and complicated two years on. 

Many people have had their lives altered by the restrictions used to combat Covid; some losing jobs and livelihoods; others missing out on special times with loved ones; still more of us exhausted and confused by ever-changing rules.

Some would have you believe that the public health response is without fault, while others would deny the very real challenges posed by Omicron, which will result in growing numbers of hospitalisations and illness. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

We must chart a path back to that middle ground that unites us, and not allow ourselves to be divided into warring factions, inextricably and increasingly opposed.

The protest at Parliament includes people who are showing a flagrant disregard for the law – blocking off streets, ignoring rules and abusing Wellingtonians.

This hasn’t been helped by a Prime Minister who is missing in action, and Trevor Mallard who has done nothing but inflame the situation.

However, there are frustrations shared by law-abiding and well-intentioned people up and down the country about the Government’s approach to Covid and its lack of a plan.

This debate should not take place between law-makers and law-breakers on the forecourt of Parliament, while roads are illegally occupied and death threats hang in the air.

However there are urgent issues before our elected representatives that must be confronted.

It is simply not sufficient for the Government to stand to one side while the protest rages, sheeting responsibility to the Police and ignoring the wider debates that fuel it.

Kiwis should be able to sympathise with some of the issues being raised by protesters on Parliament’s grounds without being framed as condoning illegal behaviour or siding with anti-science conspiracy theorists.

The Government’s unwillingness to engage with these issues has amplified division. The dismissal of anyone who questions the Government approach has fed a growing distrust.

New Zealanders have done the right thing.

We got vaccinated in record numbers. We’re getting boosted. We get tested. We’ve downloaded the app; we scan in; we wear our masks. We’ve tolerated being shut off from the rest of the world for two years.

But here we are in February 2022 and there seems no pathway out of ever more restrictions, rules and controls which are driving so much hurt and anger.

14 year old kids who can’t play rugby outside with their mates because they’re not vaccinated.

Charlotte Bellis being treated better by the Taliban than by her own government.

The daughter stuck in a MIQ hotel despite testing negative, while her mum dies just a few blocks away.

The restaurant trying to make money in the Red setting with fewer than 100 people allowed in at any one time.

The families grappling with ever changing rules.

The business owner trying to get rapid tests so he can keep his staff safe.

The tourism business closing down because there is just no plan for when visitors will be back in New Zealand.

The mum and dad who can’t get a rapid test before visiting grandparents at the local rest home.

Overloaded hospital staff who simply don’t see the promised extra ICU beds, or the extra nurses, or any extra investment.

That’s the anger, hurt, and frustration I hear and see every day.

Many of you listening will recognise a description of yourselves there.

If you do, I want to send you a very clear message.

I feel your pain.

I understand it.

And I want you to know, there is a better way under National.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has gone missing in action at precisely the moment the country is looking for leadership.

People don’t want more platitudes from the podium.

They want leadership.

They want to know when, and under what circumstances, vaccine mandates will end and when vaccine passes won’t be required any more.

They want to know when tourists will be able to come to New Zealand once again.

They want to know when gathering limits will be lifted and when events can run again.

They don’t need the exact dates. But they want to know the Government’s got their back and is being proactive, not letting Covid set the agenda by just waiting and seeing.

There is a real momentum for change in the country.

People are fed up.

Now I want to outline what I think the Government should be doing right now to heal the divisions I talked about earlier and to plot a pathway out of the mess we’re in.

Covid is very different in February 2022 to what it was in February 2020.

Back then we had no vaccines, limited testing and no effective treatments.

As scientists are recognising, Covid has transformed from a deadly disease to one that is much less serious.

Omicron is highly infectious, but milder. Covid is now manageable for the vast bulk of people at home.

It isn’t the flu. But it is similar to other infectious diseases in that it can be controlled and managed. And we have highly promising Covid treatments coming soon.

As Dr Bryan Betty of the Royal NZ College of General Practitioners says, “we need to move into a space very rapidly of thinking we're going to live with this and get back to some sort of normality.”

There are some in our community who are still in 2020 mode. They are fearful and they want high levels of government control, and zero balancing of public health with wider societal goals.

I understand this perspective, and I acknowledge that the change from full protection to risk management will be a hard transition for some. Some may choose to be risk-averse for some time into the future – whether or not the Government requires that of them.

Then there are those who say “just let it rip”. I understand their impatience but I’m also alive to the serious consequences this would bring. It’s a recipe for overwhelming our health system. We would probably cope. But Covid would trump everything else – elective surgery and other important procedures would grind to a halt.

There is a third way through this.

That way is to use effective public health measures like vaccination, boosters, testing and treatments, but to start returning normality to people’s lives. To start reducing the rules and restrictions, phasing out the mandates, and easing the divisions that have sprung up in our communities.

That’s where I’m at, and it’s where National is at.

Vaccination has been transformational.

Despite our slow start, New Zealand is now one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.

  • 95 per cent of New Zealanders aged 12 and above have had two doses.
  • Two-thirds of those eligible have had a booster.
  • And half of 5–11 year olds have had one dose.

Vaccination and boosters are protecting our hospital system.

It makes a huge difference. Unvaccinated people are much more likely to end up in hospital than those vaccinated, and much more likely to die.

The good news is that New Zealanders have done the right thing. We have got vaccinated. We have got boosted. We’re vaccinating our kids.

Now we’re looking for what’s next.

The next couple of months will be bumpy. We’re on the upward slope of the Omicron curve. Cases will keep rising quickly. There will be families who lose loved ones and individuals who will endure serious illness.

But at some point, cases will peak and then start to come down. That’s been the experience in every other developed country that has grappled with Omicron.

So we need to keep going with getting boosted and getting our kids vaccinated, deploy rapid tests widely, accept that Omicron is here, and get through it.

We don’t need to lockdown. We just need to be sensible.

Once we’re through the peak, and assuming there’s no other dangerous variant on the horizon, we can start to ease the division in our society and get back to something approaching normal life.

Very soon, vaccine mandates will have to come to an end.

It’s a big thing for a government to impose a mandate on someone. By definition, you are pressuring people to do something they don’t want to do by imposing pretty awful consequences if they don’t.

The way I think about it, mandates were justified for a while as a temporary measure as we battled Covid and lifted vaccination rates.

What we need from the Government is an honest conversation and some straight talking over the issue of mandates.

It’s not good enough for the Prime Minister to just shrug her shoulders and say “they’ll go at some point” and not enter into a dialogue over when and how. We deserve more than that.

The mandates were designed for a world in which Delta was the dominant strain.

But Omicron has changed the game.

Under our current system, vaccinated people can go to a café; the unvaccinated can’t. Vaccinated people can go to the gym; the unvaccinated can’t. Vaccinated people can get a haircut; the unvaccinated can’t.

This made sense when vaccination had a big effect on transmission.

But Omicron is just so infectious and busts through vaccination, including boosters.

Vaccination is still definitely worth it for individuals – it makes us far less likely to get seriously ill – but when vaccinated people can get Omicron and spread it, why are we limiting venues to just vaccinated people?

The public health rationale for mandates is much less than it was just a few months ago.

And it doesn’t make you an anti-vaxxer to point this out.

The mandates have caused real hardship and despair: kids denied entry to sports teams or public libraries; good men and women who have lost their jobs because they don’t want to be vaccinated.

We should get rid of mandates progressively and carefully once we are through the peak of Omicron.

We must balance the public health rationale against the massive impact mandates have on individual New Zealanders.

The Government should set out a plan for phasing out mandates. Here are two areas they could start.

The first area where vaccination was made compulsory was border workers. That made a lot of sense when we had an elimination strategy and border worker vaccinations were the tool for keeping Covid out of the community.

It obviously makes much less sense when we have thousands of community cases and as the border reopens to the world. They need to go.

The mandates I find most objectionable are the ones that apply to children taking part in extracurricular sport after school.

They make no sense. They should be gone.

I continue to think that mandates for healthcare workers are reasonable. You want people dealing with Covid in our hospitals to be vaccinated, for example.

We also need a conversation about the traffic light framework and vaccine passes.

Let’s face it – it was developed on the fly after the alert level framework became redundant, and it is a complex set of rules that are not strictly adhered to.

The system has been an absolute killer for hospitality. These businesses are doing the hard yards right now, and they need Kiwis to have the confidence to go out and support them.

Labour were advised to only apply vaccine passes to high-risk large events and venues.

They were specifically told not to apply them to bars, restaurants and cafes.

They haven’t even followed the official advice.

The Government was told that social cohesion was at risk if vaccine passes were implemented too widely. I think we can definitely agree with that.

After we get through the peak of Omicron we should remove government mandates for businesses to use vaccine passes.

The final thing we should do is aggressively reopen to the world.

The Government has outlined extremely tentative reopening plans.

Kiwis in Australia can come home from the end of February. Kiwis elsewhere have to wait until March. Australians can’t come until July and other visa holders can’t come until October.

This is an absurdly slow timeframe and to make matters worse, everyone coming in will have to isolate for seven days. This will kill any real tourism recovery.

The case for mandatory self-isolation for travellers to New Zealand is not a strong one.

We should quickly move to a rule where people take a test on arrival in New Zealand. If it is positive then they should isolate. If it’s negative, they should be free to go about their business – just like Kiwis do within New Zealand.

We should also speed up the timeframe. The border should be open right now for Kiwis anywhere in the world to return home. Then we should quickly open to tourists and other visa holders too.

One of the worst things about the past couple of years has been the way the Government shut out Kiwi citizens through the lottery of human misery that is MIQ, stirring up resentment from Kiwis both at home and overseas.

That divide will take some time to heal. But we can start by progressively reopening to the world and welcoming Kiwis home.

The protest is illustrative of frustration at Covid, but we also have other challenges – a cost of living crisis, increasing benefit dependency, house prices through the roof, and the sense that it is harder than ever to get ahead.

The country needs new leadership.

Leadership that knows how to get things done and get our Covid toolset in place.

Leadership that isn’t too proud to call it when we get things wrong and admits mistakes.

Leadership that shows up when times are tough, not just in the glory moments.

New Zealand is a fantastic country and we have a great future.

We will get what we deserve, and we deserve the very best – but ultimately that is up to each and every one of us.

If we join together, and celebrate our differences rather than letting them divide us, we really can deliver a better future for all New Zealanders.

Thank you.