“Which country managed Coronavirus best?” is the question that members of the media may not have asked explicitly during the pandemic, but have tried to answer numerous times during their coverage of it. Over the last two years, particularly in the initial stages of the outbreak, page upon page has been devoted to deciding the winners and losers in the Covid stakes.

While Sweden was relegated to the “naughty step”, given its anti-lockdown approach, New Zealand has often been regarded as a success story. One newspaper even reported that “Female-led countries handled coronavirus better”, off the back of a study comparing New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Angela Merkel and others with male leaders of the world. “Analysis points to earlier lockdowns and lower death rates under the likes of Jacinda Ardern”, continued the article.

But how has that piece aged? Has Ardern kept her reputation up in terms of pandemic management? Looking at the most important metrics, it’s hard to dispute that New Zealand has been effective in holding the virus at bay.

It had far fewer intensive care beds per head than most countries in the OECD, for instance, and only 52 Covid deaths over the last two years. A lot of the population don’t know anyone who has had the virus, as a testament to how secure the country’s borders have been.

Moreover, Ardern’s extremely strict policies – even locking down the country after a single case was detected – bought New Zealand time while vaccines were being developed.

It’s difficult to remember now, but no one could know for certain that vaccines could lead us out of the pandemic, never mind their high levels of efficacy.

If the vaccines hadn’t worked, leaders like Ardern might have gained much more criticism – for having created merely an unsustainable strategy of postponing viral outbreaks. Instead, her approach here appears to have been vindicated.

That being said, New Zealand is not out of the woods yet. In October last year, it abandoned its zero Covid policy. Ardern suggested that the vaccines had allowed New Zealand to move away from its elimination strategy, but has also had to admit the limits of this approach – due to the highly-infectious Delta variant.

In terms of virulence, Delta now looks like nothing, compared to Omicron, and New Zealand has found itself stepping up its measures, even though it has a highly-vaccinated population. One of the most striking policies is that anyone who’s been in contact with someone with Coronavirus now has to isolate for 24 days. There’s also a mandatory cap on the number of people (100) at public events and masks are mandated, even for pupils aged eight and up. 

Whether these measures hold with the public remains to be seen. Generally Ardern’s tough strategy seems to be popular. She won a landslide victory for the Labour Party in 2020, perhaps the surest sign yet that Kiwis approve.

But there have also been slight dips in the polls, and the 24-day policy has attracted a lot of criticism in the media. With 93 per cent of New Zealand’s population double vaccinated, people’s patience with measures could begin to shift significantly. Not least because, New Zealand, like the UK, is currently having a cost of living crisis. The economic effects of Covid policies – like forcing contacts of the Covid positive to stay indoors for 24 days, when they have jobs/ businesses to manage – will become more noticeable.

Either way, one imagines Ardern’s popularity will stay stable because of New Zealand’s relatively low Covid rates; it, understandably, creates the impression of competence. How much of this is due to decisiveness, however, versus managing an island nation with low population density, remains to be seen.