Yesterday morning I received a bleak text message. It was from the chairman of a local business association near my home in the Auckland suburb of Newmarket and contained a photograph of my local train station, usually a busy commuter route full of hustle and bustle.
It was completely devoid of life.
That snapshot spoke a thousand words: as we surpass the two-year anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, something close to normality has finally resumed for many across the globe.
But here in our far-flung corner of the Southern Hemisphere, isolated behind our still-sealed border, we endlessly push around a hamster wheel of ever more wearying rules and restrictions.
Among them is a staggering isolation period of up to 24 days for those in households where someone has tested positive, a mandatory cap of 100 vaccinated people at public events — a devastating imposition on the entertainment industry in this, our peak summer season — and compulsory mask wearing almost everywhere, including for school pupils aged eight and up.
Ardern’s Labour Party, which in 2017 won nearly 50 per cent of the vote, has dropped to around 35 points in the polls
You might think that only a devastating upward spiral of deaths and serious illness could justify continuing such measures, not to mention introducing new ones.
Alas not. They were introduced last week after confirmation of just nine new cases of Omicron, largely centred on a family who contracted the virus on a trip to Auckland for a wedding from their home in the South Island.
Nine new cases in a country where 93 per cent of the population is now double vaccinated — but nine cases too many for our Left-wing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, committed as she apparently is to a policy of ‘Zero Covid’ at any cost.
To coin the phrase of one of her predecessors, Sir John Key, her policies are turning us into a ‘hermit kingdom’.
Bars and restaurants have folded, among them iconic spots loved by locals and visitors alike, while those that have survived so far are half full at best, courtesy of a population petrified lest they test positive for Covid and must isolate for 14 days, while anyone in their household must stay confined for a further ten.
That potentially takes people out of the workplace — and society — for nearly a month.
Thanks to these gruesome rules, weddings are being cancelled across the country and nightclubs haven’t bothered opening up.
What’s more, these businesses haven’t caught their breath since the last bout of restrictions which lasted nearly four months and were only lifted in December.
Tourism — once this country’s largest export industry — has been laid to waste thanks to a two-year border closure: since March 2020 no one has been able to enter New Zealand without first spending at least ten days in a state-sanctioned quarantine hotel at their own expense, and where they are supervised by military personnel.
Pictured: Doctor’s Point Reserve which is located in Otago on New Zealand’s south island
Places usually bustling with peak-season tourists at this time of year are little more than ghost towns, their glaciers, lakes and vineyards unloved and unvisited.
Waitangi Day, the national day of New Zealand, is approaching on February 6. But the commemorations at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which used to attract 30,000 people annually, have been cancelled.
Sporting events have all but disappeared. While other nations watched agog as the world’s top tennis player, Novak Djokovic, was deported and barred from participating in the Australian Open over his vaccination status, the most striking aspect of the story from our perspective is that the tournament went ahead at all: our equivalent, the Auckland Open, hasn’t taken place for two years.
And just imagine the heartbreak for those citizens here who don’t dare leave our country for fear of being unable to return.
Or for the near one million-strong population of New Zealanders living abroad who have little prospect of coming home because, to do so, they have to enter a lottery for one of a small number of hotel quarantine rooms here, with only a 12 per cent chance of being successful.
It is desperately sad to watch the confident, free society I have always loved give way to this closeted, insular one, bound by what feels like ever-more authoritarian measures with no end in sight.
To add insult to injury, we are effectively banned from testing ourselves for Covid, as happens all over the world.
Only a ‘trained tester’ such as a medic or a pharmacist is allowed to do the job, and anyone who imports rapid antigen tests for home use could face up to six months in jail.
This is hardly in the spirit of the liberal, laid-back New Zealand the world once knew. It is little wonder that, weary of what feels like creeping authoritarianism and a never-ending marathon of restrictions, the population is kicking back.
The polls have moved inexorably against the government for a year now.
Nine new cases in a country where 93 per cent of the population is now double vaccinated — but nine cases too many for our Left-wing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, committed as she apparently is to a policy of ‘Zero Covid’ at any cost. Pictured: A member of the public looks through a shop window in Auckland
Meanwhile, we are labouring under record petrol and food prices — in my local supermarket, a small head of broccoli now retails for the equivalent of £2.50.
Like many countries, New Zealand has engaged in a vast amount of irresponsible government borrowing over the past two years, and as with any binge, the hangover is imminent: businesses are struggling and inflation figures due out this week are expected to be the highest here in 30 years.
You might think all this should give our government something to focus on. Instead, our evening television bulletins are still dominated by public health doomsters making their gloomy forecasts.
You can hardly blame disgruntled Kiwis for moaning that Lefties love nothing more than the excuse to impose a lockdown.
Make no mistake — I threw my support behind our Prime Minister’s decision to close our borders back in March 2020. Along with the rest of the world, our country faced enormous uncertainty as the spectre of Covid started to unfurl across the globe.
At first, everyone believed that using our strategic advantage to isolate ourselves was a price worth paying.
Sealing our border to buy time, stop a rapid spread of the disease and save lives was entirely sensible. But it must be emphasised that no one back then — Jacinda Ardern included — thought that elimination of the virus was possible.
By stealth, however, Zero Covid became the policy, and it is one that has kept our population in a state of fear about getting our way of life back.
After all, fear is a powerful political tool, and it is a tool that our government has continually deployed. It is frightening to be told by your prime minister that tens of thousands will die and, understandably, parts of the population are now permeated by the most extraordinary concern that if the borders open that’s exactly what will happen.
But it seems many are losing their patience.
Ardern’s Labour Party, which in 2017 won nearly 50 per cent of the vote, has dropped to around 35 points in the polls. We’ve seen, for the first time in 15 years, the majority of Kiwis say our country is going in the wrong direction.
While the rest of the world moves forward, it feels like we in New Zealand are moving backwards, reduced to look on enviously as you go about your business.
David Seymour is leader of New Zealand opposition party, ACT New Zealand.