Former Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins says if the Government could redo the Covid-19 response, he would have scaled back the Auckland Delta lockdowns more quickly in the last three months of 2021.
Asked what he would do differently on TVNZ's Q+A this morning, Hipkins said that at the time decisions were made, they could only be made on the information that was at hand.
However, he pointed to the Auckland lockdowns as something he would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight.
"There were probably some areas we could have moved more quickly to step down some restrictions. That lockdown in Auckland at the end of 2021 I think nerves were pretty frayed by the end of that. And we should acknowledge that. Aucklanders paid a big price for our ongoing suppression of Delta while we got our vaccination rates up and so on."
Those lockdowns were put in place to stop Delta making it out of Auckland as part of last-gasp efforts to hold the elimination strategy together – and then to buy time to get vaccination levels up as it became obvious Omicron would arrive in New Zealand.
It saw Aucklanders go through three months of lockdowns from August 17 to December 2 – eased only by steps such as allowing people to meet and entertain visitors outside.
Hipkins moved to the Police portfolio in PM Jacinda Ardern's recent reshuffle, replacing Poto Williams while Ayesha Verrall has taken over the Covid-19 portfolio.
Asked why stricter measures were not still in place given Omicron was causing damage, Hipkins said the Government had to weigh up other factors such as the public tolerance for restrictions and their cost on the economy and to mental health.
Hipkins also pointed to the role public opinion had played in the Covid response – saying after public tolerance for measures ebbed there was little point keeping them in place.
"I was minister responsible for our border restrictions for two years and that was really tough going. By the end there is really no question we had started to run out of public support for maintaining border restrictions, so we really do have to respond to that. At the end of the day our Covid-19 response was only as successful as it was because New Zealanders were on board with it. If you start to lose the public, then the effectiveness of the response is going to diminish as well."
Asked about vaccine mandates remaining in the health sector, Hipkins said that was now a decision for the health ministers. However, his view was that they were justified in health to keep vulnerable people safe. "Will they be justified forever? No they won't be. So that is something we, as a government, will keep under regular review."
Asked why he should be moved out of the portfolio given Omicron was still circulating widely Hipkins said it was now more a health response rather than one involving multiple agencies.
"I acknowledge that's a system that is under an immense amount of pressures, but it is the health ministers who should be leading us through that."
"We have moved well past the elimination strategy that we had for the better part of two years. We are now in a position where we just have to adjust and we have to accept the reality that Covid 19 is now here, it's here to stay. We need to learn to do things differently."
He said the country was "not out of the woods yet" but the availability of vaccines and medical treatments for Covid-19 meant it was a different situation to the first two years.
He said he was proud of the overall management of the pandemic, saying it left New Zealand in much better shape than most other countries.