Jacinda Ardern is no hero

Jacinda-mania has taken hold on the Left, but New Zealand’s Prime Minister has pursued a disastrous Covid policy

I’ve long been an admirer of New Zealand, not least for its decision, back in the 1980s, to stop subsidising and protecting its farmers and to open its markets to the world. While some farmers went to the wall, the agricultural sector as a whole boomed. But I won’t be cracking open a bottle of very fine Oyster Bay to join in “Jacinda-mania” as Jacinda Ardern almost certainly wins her second term as Prime Minister.

If I had a vote it would definitely  have gone  to “Crusher” – opposition leader Judith Collins who earned her nickname after her policy while police minister of crushing cars which had been used in illegal street racing. If Collins ever feels like throwing in the political towel back home and standing as police and crime commissioner around my way she will have my full support.

Ardern seems set for victory largely on account of the reputation she has built up for managing Covid-19. She’s a heroine not just among Blairites – she used to work for Tony Blair – but among business leaders everywhere, according to a survey conducted by Bloomberg last week. They apparently voted New Zealand as the country which has done best to tackle Covid-19. 

But why? Look at the raw figures and New Zealand appears virtually to have escaped the pandemic. To date, it has had 1,880 cases and 25 deaths. At five deaths per million inhabitants it works out at less than one percent of the death toll in Britain. What did Ardern do to achieve this? Nothing, really, much different from what Boris Johnson’s government did. Having tried a bit of social distancing advice first, she closed bars and restaurants on March 23, two days after Boris did. New Zealand went into full lockdown on March 25, the day after Britain.

The only thing that New Zealand did but which Britain didn’t was to close its borders, which it did on March 19. Maybe we should have tried that, too, but it would hardly have had the same effect in Britain. By the middle of March the virus was well set in Britain, or at least London. It had come here, before it was even known to exist, via skiers returning from Italy and Austria, and via hundreds of flights from China.

New Zealand has got off lightly from Covid 19 not because it has an earnest leader in a trouser suit but because it is a global Isle of Lewis – the outer Hebridean island which hadn’t suffered a single Covid death until this week. Britain, by comparison, is Piccadilly Circus. We can’t cut ourselves off in the way that New Zealand can, situated as it is a thousand miles from the nearest other country, and self-sufficient in food. Moreover, once the virus was in Britain it could spread far faster on our crowded tubes and buses than it could in New Zealand’s less dense urban areas.

Yet for squashing Covid-19 flat, Ardern’s New Zealand has paid a terrible economic price. In the second quarter GDP fell by 12.2 per cent. That’s smaller than Britain’s fall, but it is a horrendous collapse considering the far lighter footprint of coronavirus in New Zealand. The economy has been impacted in this way because of the heavy-handedness of lockdown restrictions. In August, while the UK economy was tentatively reopening, Ardern threw Auckland, her capital city, back into a full lockdown over just four reported cases.

There’s nothing to admire in that. It is sheer panic, taking the precautionary principle to absurd new heights. Ardern’s problem now is how, having isolated her country from the rest of the world, does she ever open it up again? If an effective vaccine does emerge in the near future – far from a given – she might yet come out of the pandemic looking wise. But if, as is arguably more likely to happen, the Covid crisis eventually dies away due to a combination of better treatments and herd immunity, she will have to keep New Zealand’s borders closed until the very last, as hardly any of her citizens will have built up immunity.

Ardern’s second term could prove to be a very long, and not very prosperous, few years.    

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