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Insights 11: 3 April 2020
In the NZ Herald, Eric Crampton asks what's so important about vaping regulations at this moment?
Podcast: Eric Crampton and Bryce Wilkinson discuss whether the Government’s Covid-19 cost-benefit analysis and subsequent lockdown is economically sound.
Read our new Research Note: How bad might the lockdown be for job and income?

The missing half of a coherent Covid-19 strategy
Roger Partridge | Chairman |
Professor Sir David Skegg raised the 64-thousand-dollar (or perhaps 64 billion-dollar) question in his testimony before Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee this week. He asked whether the government had a clear the strategic objective for its unprecedented level-four lockdown.

Since the subtitle of Alert Level 4 is “Eliminate”, Sir David’s question might seem unfair. And Director General of Health, Dr Ashly Bloomfield, quickly clarified to media that elimination is indeed the goal.

But if elimination is the objective, it is troubling that Minister of Health David Clark referred to a goal of reducing the epidemic’s effect to successive “waves” of infection in his testimony before the Committee. There will be no waves of infection if elimination is successful.

Lack of consistency in messaging about the Government’s strategic objective is worrying. But there is a more fundamental concern with the elimination objective: the absence of a clear timeframe. Of course, we can eliminate the disease. If the four-week lockdown does not work, the government simply forces us into lockdown for longer. But at what cost?

A cost-benefit assessment sounds heartless when the goal of the lockdown policy is to save lives. But the country-wide pause has already triggered a domino-effect of business failures and job losses. Just as the coronavirus spreads exponentially, so does harm from the lockdown. For firms and workers, each day of lockdown causes more business failures and job losses.

These economic effects have health and wellbeing implications too. And at some point, the harm to the wellbeing of Kiwis from the lockdown may become greater than the benefit to the wellbeing of New Zealanders from continuing with it.

Most estimates show unemployment soon running into double figures. Overseas estimates suggest if Governments are not careful unemployment could exceed 20% or even 30% – levels not seen since the Great Depression.
The hardship caused to hundreds of thousands of Kiwi families from widespread unemployment, the evaporation of job opportunities for the new generation of school leavers and the losses to the productive side of the economy which funds our social services and most of the population’s livelihoods, must all be factored into the Government’s strategic choices.
Until it addresses this complicated equation, the Government’s Covid-19 strategy is at best only half complete. A well-informed strategy must consider both curves – the epidemiological curve and the economic curve.
In the meantime, Professor Skegg had some clear advice for the Government on the areas it must lift its game to give us the best chance of achieving the goal of elimination. The Government must fix the shortcomings with Covid-19 testing. It must enforce strict quarantining at the border. And it must improve contact tracing.

If the Government gets these tactics right, perhaps it can sidestep the bigger strategic decision. But it is fast bearing down on us.

In the meantime, the Government must be more transparent with New Zealanders on the difficult strategic choices the country is facing. If it isn’t, we risk drifting in a direction that may do more harm than good.

Suffocating media
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
Yesterday, New Zealand’s biggest magazine publisher Bauer announced it would close its operations. Many well-established magazines including The Listener, North & South and Metro will disappear from the shelves forever.

The loss for New Zealand’s media scene is dramatic. Even more so as the future of many other media companies is equally uncertain.

Once the Covid-19 crisis is over, will there still be an independent Will MediaWorks with its TV and radio channels still exist? Will there still be a printed National Business Review?

Covid-19 will plough through this media landscape with brutal force. The lockdown ensures that fewer people buy print products. At the same time, private advertising revenue has collapsed. Even after the lockdown, advertisements for airlines, cruises and packaged holidays will not return for a long time. The financial viability of many newspapers is uncertain.

New Zealand’s media scene has been shallow for many years. Covid-19 is decimating it even further. This is happening at a time when the Government’s police-state-like powers need Fourth Estate scrutiny like never before.

What is unfolding is nothing but tragic: for journalism, for readers viewers and listeners, for the political culture.

Still, it would be wrong to blame either the virus or the Government’s lockdown decision for the collapse of media.

Media organisations have been in decline for many years. The reasons are manifold. To just name a few, classified ads have disappeared and moved to online platforms. Other advertising has also shifted into the digital world. The internet’s early ‘everything is free’ culture has reduced consumers’ willingness to pay for news.

Perhaps most importantly, Kiwi news consumers have a whole world of newspapers to read.  If one wants the latest in entertainment news, car reviews or finance – or indeed in any other field – it can be found in British, American or Australian publications. If a person reads in other languages, they have even more choice. That international content is often free and sometimes better.

It did not take Covid-19 to ruin New Zealand’s media. But Covid-19 greatly accelerated a process that had been well underway.

Who will talk about the future of this country when the crisis is over? Which investigative reporters will uncover political scandals? Which commentators will offer new ideas to enlighten or enrage?

It would be worthwhile to discuss these questions in public and with the public. But where?

Committed to making New Zealand the safest country?
Luke Redward | Research Intern |
In a Select Committee this week, then-Police Commissioner Mike Bush expressed his unwillingness to release the “complex” guidelines his officers are using to enforce lockdown.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the idea of the police with secret regulations you can’t break doesn’t spark joy in my life. Also, with all due respect Commissioner, if you admitting the regulations are complex, how do you expect your officers to uphold them? 
What is most shocking, however, is his admission that the goalposts of regulations shift every day, ensuring accountability is as easy as finding a needle in a haystack.
Lord Sumption, a former UK Supreme Court Justice, has blasted the ‘disgraceful’ policing in the United Kingdom, fearing Britain is charging head-first into a police state. And this isn’t idle concern. Police in Derbyshire were criticised this week for posting a video taken with a drone, shaming people out on a walk in the countryside. Throughout the UK, people are intimidated socially or told by the Crown to go home.
We are starting to see similar stories closer to home. Reports are coming in from around the country of police stopping and searching passers-by or forcing people to return home who were on their way to buy medicine or groceries. To make matters worse, the police is not only permitting a dob-your-neighbour-in neighbourhood watch policy, it is encouraging this with a dedicated website to help citizens tell on their neighbours. This is a  policy unheard of since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And how is this tool being used? Many people, confused about the lockdown, have reported their neighbours for simply exercising outside. This wastes precious police time and creates an atmosphere of fear.
Act MP David Seymour noted in the Select Committee that acting like the saviours of humanity while refusing to release guidelines really is just papering over the cracks.
Former Commissioner Mike Bush said it is up to the Courts to decide when the police overstep. I’m sorry, but no democracy following the rule of law runs a do-now-ask-later policy.
If the incoming new Commissioner Andrew Coster truly wants Kiwis to feel safe and secure, he should release clear guidelines. If the police breaks its guidelines, which we all know exist, we can hold officers to account, a luxury that no confused soul currently has.
We all acknowledge and even accept that during times of national crisis, some civil liberties are placed in the chilly bin. Yet, doesn’t the Magna Carta say that even the Crown is subject to the rule of law?
On The Record
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