Leaving lockdown politically harder than going in

A decision on the next possible lockdown move - to Level 2 - will come in the same week as the Budget.  Peter Dunne says the stakes are high for both

The decision to extend the alert Level 4 lockdown for a further five days until April 27 was not unexpected. It reflects a degree of pragmatism on the part of many, as well as the tenor of a number of informal opinion polls consistently showing about a two-to-one margin in favour of extending the duration of the lockdown. The Government was hardly going to ignore such sentiment.

And, given earlier comments by the Director General of Health it clearly reflected what he wanted, too. Indeed, the Prime Minister admitted as much when she said the Cabinet followed his recommendations to the letter. However, in truth, it had little real alternative because the various emergency regulations vest near total power in the Director General. Some legal commentary has suggested his authority exceeds that evenof ministers for the duration of the emergency.

But while the Cabinet and the Director General are in step for now, there is an ongoing tension that will remain so long as the country is under the emergency regulations. In this column, just two weeks ago, I wrote that “The Prime Minister understands better and more clearly than the public health officials and some of the other government officials advising her where the boundaries of public tolerance and support lie.” She “…knows that while people have so far been largely supportive of the massive steps that have been taken, that support will not last forever, as the doubts about their future employment prospects or the sheer frustration of continuing to live within their “bubble” magnify.”

That is why managing getting out of the lockdown and its various stages will be so much harder than it was ever was to enter it in the first place. The glimmer of a return to some form of normality will fuel its own impatience, particularly among those who have been hardest hit by the last few weeks’ restrictions.

The Prime Minister faces the delicate balancing act of ensuring there is a continuing momentum for relaxing restrictions while at the same time not getting too far ahead of what the health evidence is showing. Even so, she will inevitably be accused by some, mainly in the devastated small to medium sized business sector of being too much in the pocket of the public health sector, and insufficiently in tune with their depressing economic realities. But probably nothing short of a swift return to something like Level 1 is likely to satisfy them, and that is understandable, if unrealistic.

In the months ahead, the veneer of unity between the Government’s wider political objectives and the health officials’ naturally more narrow focus will be stretched increasingly taut. To date, the public health officials have been the ones largely running the response, but as time moves on, the politicians will want to assume more direct control. This is because this is an inherently political process, especially with an election still likely before the end of the year, no matter the naïve hopes, and wishful thinking of some to the contrary.

The Prime Minister, like every other political leader, has been acutely aware of election timing from the outset and has been carefully tuning her approach accordingly. While there is a long way to go, she will not be unhappy at the public response so far.

But not everything has been running as smoothly as it should have. For example, there is the increasing disconnect between the silken and blithe assurances being given at the daily press conferences that all is well with PPE and supplies are more than adequate, and the contrary reality being reported from the front-line where nurses, doctors and health workers are expressing mounting frustration at the difficulties obtaining supplies, and their fears for the future.

When a group of All Blacks feels the need to get together to charter an aircraft to bring more supplies to New Zealand it is hard to escape the feeling that someone, somewhere, is just not telling the complete truth on this issue. Now, the Auditor-General has begun an investigation into the Ministry of Health’s handling of the PPE issue. The longer all this uncertainty goes on, the more it will start to gnaw at public confidence about the overall response.

Add to that the murky story about contact tracing mechanisms. The future success of current strategy hinges on the ability to contact trace actual and potential cases, yet it is clear, despite various attempts at justification, that current systems are inadequate and cannot cope. This may not be a major problem if the Government is successful in the next few months in achieving its ambition of eliminating Covid-19 from New Zealand. But it will become a huge issue if there is subsequently any resurgence in case numbers, with a significant potential impact on public confidence.

Outside these immediate issues, two dates – May 11 and May 14 – now loom as significant. On May 11 we will be told whether and when we will be moving out of Level 3. Many people will already be marking that on their calendars as the day we move to Level 2. However, the Prime Minister has already indicated that we will not move on that date, but that, as with the move out of Level 4, she will announce on May 11 the date we will move from Level 3. That means that as with the move out of Level 4, there could be a lag of a few days.

Later that week, on May 14, the Budget is scheduled to be presented. Normally, its content would have been well finalised by now, and the process of advance drip-feeding some of its good news would have commenced, especially in election year. Covid-19 has changed all that. Not only has the idea of a traditional election year handout Budget had to be scrapped – because a substantial amount of that money has had to be diverted to Covid-19 relief measures instead – but the entire focus of the Budget has had to change.

Now, the Minister of Finance has the nigh impossible task of presenting a Budget that not only sets out as clear as possible a coherent economic strategy over the next three to four years (the usual horizon for Budgets) for coming out of the Covid-19 crisis, but also announces fresh assistance – and how it is to be paid for – to vulnerable sectors and groups, over and above the programmes that have already been put in place. He will have to reassure both an anxious public, jittery markets, and trading partners that New Zealand is indeed viable and open for business again, debunking the International Monetary Fund’s grim prediction last week that, of all the countries outside of Europe, only Venezuela will be worse affected economically by Covid-19 than New Zealand.

As it navigates its way through the difficult times ahead, the Government will need to keep taking the public with it. That will require honest and factual communication, built in turn on transparency and full disclosure.

However, as the contradictory messages that emerged at the start of the lockdown about what Level 4 meant for everyone, and the subsequent confusion over PPE availability and contact tracing have shown, transparency and accurate disclosure have not always been in strong supply. Add to that last week’s decision by the Attorney-General not to release the advice of the Solicitor-General on the legality of the response measures to date and there is cause for concern about the Government’s ongoing openness.

In difficult times like this, compliance is based on trust – between government and people in equal proportions. It is now time for openness, clarity and consistency to match the empathy shown to date, not the Attorney-General’s approach of keeping people in the dark. Otherwise, the trust an anxious public has invested in the Government so far will quickly dissipate.

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