'Stop being smug': Economist says NZ can't open borders too soon

Source: 1News

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has strong words for those calling for New Zealand's borders to open to the world: "Stop being smug."

He joined Breakfast on Wednesday morning to outline why it was too soon to open the country's borders, in the wake of a call by former prime minister John Key at the weekend to share a date.

In a widely published opinion piece, Key had released a five-point plan to improve New Zealand's Covid-19 response.

In it, he said New Zealand's aim should no longer be to "exist in a smug hermit kingdom" and it should get back to allowing Kiwis to travel overseas freely, allow stranded Kiwis to come home without the "lottery" of MIQ, and open up the borders.

At the time, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said describing the country as a "smug hermit kingdom" was an "insult" to the team of five million. 

In the days since, the Government has defended its response and said it is already using some of Key's "reasonable" ideas.

Eaqub told Breakfast he did not "buy" the story New Zealand would open up and everything would be OK.

If the country were to open up tomorrow thousands of Kiwis would die, while others would suffer from long Covid, he said.

It would be difficult for people to access hospital treatment as they would be full of Covid-19 cases and Eaqub warned doctors and nurses who were already "on edge" would get burnout. 

"We can't afford to lose that last line of defence."

Hospital workers treating a Covid-19 patient in the ICU (file).

Eaqub said the country would be "hitting alarm levels" with only 1 per cent of the population in ICU with the virus. 

Recent modelling by Te Pūnaha Matatini showed the bleak consequences of failing to reach high vaccination rates .

The model predicted that if 80 per cent of the population over the age of five, or around 75 per cent of the entire population, were vaccinated against Covid-19, it would result in 7000 Covid-related deaths a year and about 60,000 hospitalisations.

However, the model said with a 90 per cent vaccination rate for people over five years old — about 85 per cent of the entire population — deaths from the virus would drop to about 600 a year, or 50 with additional health measures.

Eaqub said "we don't have to and we must not" open the borders too soon, lest the country face "immense pain and suffering" in its Māori and Pasifika populations, akin to the recent measles outbreak.

New Zealand could not afford to open its borders too quickly until the vaccination rate was up "quite significantly". 

Shamubeel Eaqub says New Zealand would see "immense pain and suffering", akin to the recent measles outbreak, if it opens up to the world too soon.

Eaqub said the world was not going back to how life was in 2019 and restrictions would continue to be needed as it was clear the virus could not be eradicated.

He described New Zealand as being unaware of domestic restrictions other countries had been living with and said there would need to be changes to how we live our lives.

This included improving ventilation, limits on gatherings, and ongoing mask-wearing. 

Eaqub said those who had had enough and a gutful, did not want to live in a "smug hermit kingdom" or who had had both vaccine doses and wanted the country's borders to open that they needed to talk to those who had lost loved ones to Covid-19 "because that is the reality of how the rest of the world has lived in the last 18 months".

"It feels very comfortable to be able to say those kinds of things when you’re a smug little person sitting in safe and secure New Zealand," he said.

"Stop being smug."