Comment

A shake and a shift in the messaging

There has been a quiet shift in the Government's messaging around the Covid-19 response, observes Peter Dunne

There was comment recently that last week could be the most 'telling week of all' in the Government’s response to Covid-19. While that claim turned out to be somewhat exaggerated, it was nevertheless a most eventful few days.

Auckland’s move out of Level 3, to the hurriedly contrived Level 2.5 status, has been anything but smooth and assured.

With there still being new cases confirmed in Auckland the apparent complacency of Aucklanders in responding to the dangers around them led epidemiologists and others to warn of the potential risk of opening up Auckland to the rest of the country too soon, an anxiety subsequent opinion polls have confirmed was also being felt around the rest of the country.

Then there was the near panic response to the advice on the Ministry of Health’s website that everyone in West and South Auckland should get a Covid-19 test and the Government’s tardiness in correcting that apparent misinformation.

Even the Prime Minister’s usual deftness in responding to critics began to look a little shaky ... Did she really mean that, and that the advice published on other Government and official media platforms was no longer to be taken seriously?

Add to that, the Government’s abrupt about-turn on compulsory masking on public transport and in public buildings (something the experts have been calling for since March) and it was beginning to look as though the wheels were at least loose, if not falling off altogether, on the hitherto well-oiled national chariot.

At the very least, the fiction of the “team of five million” came to an abrupt end then. Instead, depending on where one lived, “us against them”, returned as the more normal state of affairs.

Even the Prime Minister’s usual deftness in responding to critics began to look a little shaky, with her making the extraordinary comment in the wake of the West and South Auckland testing debacle that if a message came from the Government it would be something that would be announced "directly". 

Moreover she added, "I can assure you that if we were going to do something so significant as asking hundreds of thousands of people to be tested ... we would not leave a message as significant as that to a website, to a Twitter account or Instagram."

In other words, only the words of Ministers uttered at the daily media briefing are to be believed.

Did she really mean that, and that the advice published on other Government and official media platforms was no longer to be taken seriously?

If so, she is really is giving substance to Humpty Dumpty’s words to Alice that “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”!

The Government’s handling of the Auckland situation over the last couple of weeks has been a far cry from its assured handling of the original lockdowns in March and April.

To be fair, though, this is not surprising as the situation has changed markedly since then. At the time, the focus was on trying to get ahead of the situation that was still being feared could occur, of Intensive Care Units being overrun with Covid-19 cases and simply unable to cope, as was then being seen in other countries.

The ensuing public fear that unleashed was always going to assist the Government adopt a draconian response, and the Government shrewdly exploited that sense of public fear to sustain seven weeks of national lockdown at Levels 4 and 3.

Its success in effectively eliminating Covid-19 during that time meant that the Government’s approach was tolerated as necessary, simply because it worked, and the worst of earlier fears about the health service being overrun to the point of collapse had not been realised.

However, the unfortunate reality of the situation was that those few weeks were so unusual that New Zealanders were prepared to tolerate sweeping restrictions to overcome the risks they perceived were all around them. In effect, the Government offered New Zealanders a deal at that time – the payoff for putting up with some of the toughest rules in the world, was that in return, the Government would keep people safe, first from the deadly coronavirus, and later, from potential economic devastation.

The intensity of the combination of raw public fear (remember the Prime Minister’s “act like you have Covid-19” advice on the eve of the Level 4 lockdown?) and grim determination that got the country through those seven weeks was unlikely to be ever capable of being repeated.

The Government was probably well aware of this when the second Auckland outbreak was confirmed, and the country returned to partial and differing lockdowns on August 12.

While there has been no officially stated change in the Government’s approach over the last nearly six months, there has nonetheless been a subtle but deliberate change going on over the last couple of weeks.

It has been notable over the last week or so that the Minister of Health has spoken frequently of “containment” being the Government’s objective.

Officially, the Government remains committed to a policy of elimination, with a range of comprehensive support measures in place to support business and employment to sustain economic activity. However, with elimination becoming an increasingly near impossible goal to maintain on a long-term basis as the outbreak of the Auckland clusters has shown, and government support programmes now topping $50 billion – equivalent to just on a quarter of the country’s normal annual Gross Domestic Product, the reality was things had to change.

Already, there had been noises about the difficulty of extending wage subsidies indefinitely, raising further uncertainty levels in an already very jittery business sector.

But now there are clear signs that the Government’s approach to Covid-19 itself is changing. It has been notable over the last week or so that the Minister of Health has spoken frequently of “containment” being the Government’s objective.

Yet, since March, the Prime Minister has been adamant that elimination is New Zealand’s goal. As recently as Monday of this week she told New Zealanders “this framework, this hasn't at its core changed. This has been the same all the way through."

The Prime Minister’s assertions notwithstanding, the Minister of Health is continuing to describe the Government’s approach as “containment”. Through such an approach, the Government has been able to lift the Level 3 lockdown, and now, the Minister of Health is signalling that a return to Level 1 is likely even if there are still cases of Covid-19 in the community.

The emerging realities of the burgeoning economic costs of ongoing support programmes and reducing levels of public tolerance for the restrictions imposed by lockdowns have probably driven this pragmatic response.

Two other factors may have helped. At a more immediate and superficial level, the move to widespread masking has not proved to be nearly the imposition critics argued it would be, and has also added a little colour to our otherwise generally drab fashion scene, while helping provide a practical personal barrier against the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, the explanation of the quiet shift may be far more straightforward. The election is but a few weeks away ...

Second, and potentially more significant, was the Government’s announcement last week that it has set aside unspecified hundreds of millions of dollars towards the purchase of vaccines as and when they become available. The obliqueness of this announcement strongly suggests that the Government knows far more than it is willing to let on at present, which may in turn have given it more confidence to move quietly away from its elimination policy to the more pragmatic containment option.

On the other hand, the explanation of the quiet shift may be far more straightforward. The election is but a few weeks away, and the last thing the Government would want is for people to still be enduring significant restrictions at that time. Shifting to a containment focus, means not only that restrictions can be steadily lifted, but also that the Government can start to reclaim the initiative after the last of couple of messy weeks.

However, that would imply that the group of politicians who make up the Government are thinking like politicians facing an election in just a few weeks. But that could never be because the Prime Minister, who has been such a paragon of consistency in her comments throughout the Covid-19 crisis, assured us all earlier this week “Never, ever have we made a political decision in the management of Covid19.”  

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