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The rapid community spread of the Delta variant has sorely exposed the government’s complete lack of preparedness to deal with it. It wasted precious months of New Zealand’s globally coveted Covid-free status, not getting on speedily with the vaccination rollout and failing to set right its clunky managed quarantine system.

All the while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson have steadfastly stood by the Total Elimination Strategy. However, the government’s lack of action these past few months did little to bolster that strategy. It seemed as though a rapid vaccination rollout and the dire need to fix the quarantine system were not important parts of that strategy.

The quickness and trickiness with which the Delta variant behaves and spreads has already begun to spark a rethink in other parts of the world as to whether something like a total elimination strategy that New Zealand has espoused can really work. In fact, several western countries have abandoned that tack.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said earlier this week New Zealand couldn’t follow the elimination strategy and keep borders closed indefinitely anymore – “It’s like living in a cave,” he said.

But the New Zealand establishment will have no bar of it – at least at the moment. Minister Hipkins said this week that having come this far with the elimination strategy, it would be unwise to abandon it at this stage. We need to keep doing what we are doing, he said.

What is the guarantee that the strategy will work? After all, when asked last year why dedicated quarantine facilities were not being built, Mr Hipkins had said that our current facilities were adequate and that by the time they were built, there might not be a need for them anymore. How way of the mark that comment was.

No one has a crystal ball, and all options must be on the table if the government hopes to keep on top of the wily Delta variant, which Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield described this week as being “like a whole new virus”.

It would be ill-advised to press on ahead with a mono-pronged elimination strategy. While it proceeds apace with the vaccination rollout – which has had an impressive boost since Delta spurred the government into overdrive over the past week – it must look at completely overhauling its quarantine system.

At the same time, it must look at options of opening up the borders on reaching sufficient vaccination numbers – ninety per cent of the eligible population, according to modelers – which are deemed to keep infection levels manageable causing no undue strain on the country’s medical and intensive care infrastructure.

Other countries are already working toward this. Simply because they have come round to the view that total elimination is impossible with ultra-virulent variants such as Delta. The emerging consensus around the world is that Delta and similar future variants are here to stay and we will simply have to learn to live with them, pretty much like we have had to learn to live with seasonal viral infections like influenza.

In the meantime, the government must look to adopt new techniques more widely and quickly like saliva testing and even self-testing kits that are now being used in Europe including the UK. These new techniques further eliminate the risk for spread through human contact since people can conduct these tests when being isolated.

The government’s total elimination strategy might be fast approaching its use by date if it hasn’t already passed it.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 26 August 2021