Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
March 23rd, 2021 marked the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown in the UK. It’s been quite the year for everyone, and now comes a point of reflection as to where we currently are as a nation, and how we got here. Why are we, an island state that could so easily isolate from the rest of the world, only now reaching the point where restrictions from the third national lockdown are being eased? It is a very painful, yet poignant comparison to look at our progress versus that of New Zealand – we are similar in so many respects, yet the two experiences of COVID could not be more different.
The initial responses of Jacinda Ardern and Boris Johnson simply could not be more different. Johnson was proud to say that he had been visiting COVID wards and shaking peoples’ hands because the virus was nothing the be afraid of. He also spoke of the importance of letting the virus sweep through the nation to create herd immunity, despite the lack of scientific evidence that this would work. Not only this, but when deaths and cases began to drop, and restrictions loosened, he actively encouraged people to go out.
The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme does not just live on in the nightmares of hospitality workers forced to endure this, but in the sharp rise in COVID figures from September. It is estimated that this mis-informed scheme to try and kickstart the economy accounted for a sixth of COVID clusters over the summer. One simply loses count at the number of U-turns and direction changes undertaken by the government – one of the most recent being Christmas. Despite experts warning that a five-day break in restrictions would be detrimental to the COVID statistics, Johnson maintained this illusion until just days before the policy would be implemented. This course of action was naturally reversed, but not before enough damage was done to warrant the January lockdown, which largely remains, with the prospect of easing coming soon. Johnson was also quick to give the 21st June as the date when all COVID restrictions could be lifted and nightclubs could open again. Naturally, this sparked huge amounts of excitement nationally, but many doubt that this plan will actually come to fruition, as the expected third wave of COVID hits Europe.
It feels quite dire to look back on a year of COVID in the UK, and if you want to feel worse, keep reading as I will now look at New Zealand’s handling of the pandemic!
Like the UK, it is an isolated island nation, yet they have managed to eradicate the virus with only 26 deaths and 2479 cases. Arden started the national lockdown when there were only 102 cases, starting with a four-week lockdown that would then be extended by another three. There was no public outcry, no anti-lockdown protests; they simply followed the rules. Ardern’s enormous popularity worked in her favour, meaning she could be semi-authoritarian in her approach to lockdown. Every death from COVID was mourned in the papers, and international borders were completely closed. Even recently when there was a cluster of new cases linked to the UK strain, Auckland, an entire 2 million-string city went into complete lockdown after just 14 cases.
The differences are clear and do not need to be spelt out. Hindsight is 20/20, and reflection on the past is only useful if it can inform the future. The vaccination program in the UK has just hit 30 million, and as this gains pace, hopefully a level of permanence can be enjoyed by all as restrictions ease.