Week in Review

Ardern under strain from Covid-19 slip-up

The strength of New Zealand's borders have been a critical part in the country's claims to Covid-19 success - so it is no wonder a high-profile failure there has led to such strong criticism, political editor Sam Sachdeva writes

Facing the cameras, Jacinda Ardern’s expression was as stony as the stretch of State Highway 1 that has caused her so much trouble this week.

It is little wonder the Prime Minister looked so displeased, as she prepared to outline her Government’s response to perhaps its most significant Covid-19 error since New Zealand went into lockdown.

That the country’s 24-day streak without a new case of the virus was broken by two women returning from the United Kingdom to visit a dying family member is not the fault of officials.

That the pair were allowed, on compassionate grounds, to leave their 14-day quarantine period in an Auckland hotel early - and without returning a negative test - travelling the length of the North Island only to test positive in Wellington, is far less defensible.

More than 300 people are now set to undergo Covid-19 tests after the news came to light, while gaping holes seemed to be exposed in the border procedures so critical to our strategy of elimination.

One saving grace appeared to be the women’s strict adherence to the rules of their isolation plan, both Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield praising them for avoiding all contact with people and public facilities on their way south (secluded stretches of road apparently providing the venue for bathroom breaks).

New Zealand’s extraordinarily stringent lockdown was in part lightened by the hope and eventual truth that we would regain our freedom by “going hard and early”, destroying the virus and leaving our shores as the last, and best, line of defence.

Yet there was a twist at Question Time on Wednesday afternoon, as National health spokesman Michael Woodhouse claimed the pair had initially taken the wrong route out of Auckland, and “the good Samaritans who assisted them were rewarded with a kiss and a cuddle”.

The Ministry of Health eventually confirmed the basic facts of Woodhouse's story, although there was still some dispute over the extent of physical contact between the pair and the friends who helped them on their way.

But while the breach would certainly undermine the reputation of the travellers, the story as has already been confirmed is more than enough to give Ardern and her team cause for serious concern.

New Zealand’s extraordinarily stringent lockdown was in part lightened by the hope and eventual truth that we would regain our freedom by “going hard and early”, destroying the virus and leaving our shores as the last, and best, line of defence.

As it happens, that last line is not so secure, and there is some justified anger at the Government’s failure to successfully preserve our gains, as Ardern has repeatedly asked of us.

Bloomfield revealed new arrivals were not being tested at day three, despite that being government policy, while others at the quarantine hotel in question complained about a lack of rigorous health checks and other sanitary measures.

For once, criticism headed David Clark's way is not entirely justified. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Predictably, the screw-up has led to calls for the scalp of Health Minister David Clark.

But this is the rare case where the criticism headed his way is not entirely deserved (strange as that may seem).

While the concept of vicarious responsibility does exist within the New Zealand political system, ministerial resignations as a direct result of officials’ errors are vanishingly rare.

Clark’s role now should be to watch his officials’ work like a hawk and ensure their system’s flaws are fixed - although it is easy to see why some may not trust his ability to do so.

As National leader Todd Muller pressed Ardern on how the mistake had happened and who would be held to account, she tried to turn defence into attack by contrasting that criticism with his desire to open up the border to international students and visitors from Australia.

Yet in doing so, the Prime Minister created a false dichotomy: it is possible to make a case for widening the criteria for those who are allowed on our shores, while also insisting on rigorous health checks and quarantine procedures for those who do enter the country.

Of course, with a greater flow of people would come greater risk, and the apparent inability of health officials to properly oversee a far more modest intake of returning New Zealanders has done no favours to the case for a trans-Tasman bubble.

There are surely political considerations at play in the show of strength - Wednesday was possibly Muller’s best and easiest as Opposition leader, finding it all too easy to take free hits at the Government.

But government incompetence in overseeing the current rules is not an adequate justification for failing to consider widening them.

So much of New Zealand’s success to date has relied on trust: the public’s trust that ministers would not abuse the extraordinary powers they granted themselves, and the trust that we would all follow the rules without the need for soldiers to line the streets.

Yet trust is not enough by itself at the border - and so Ardern has appointed assistant chief of the NZ Defence Force, Air Commodore Digby Webb, to review and oversee our border management processes.

"We need the rigour, we need the confidence and we need the discipline that the military can provide," she said.

In reality, any military presence will most likely be in backroom roles, with the logistical rigour of personnel what is most appealing to the Government.

It is still a significant escalation, but not unmerited in the circumstances.

There are surely political considerations at play in the show of strength - Wednesday was possibly Muller’s best and easiest as Opposition leader, finding it all too easy to take free hits at the Government.

But the more salient issue is the inherent importance of keeping our border airtight.

Succeed, and we secure a place atop the list of the world’s best performers; fail, and we could easily fall back into the pack.

* This article has been updated to reflect the Ministry of Health confirming the women with Covid-19 did get lost and get friends to meet them and provide directions

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