While questions have been asked about the Government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Opposition is also under scrutiny for its critiques – most recently in a medical journal piece warning against scaremongering and point scoring.

A group of public health experts has urged politicians to avoid scaremongering and point scoring over the coronavirus response, saying such an approach will undermine healthcare workers.

An editorial on the political response to Covid-19, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal and signed by over 50 infectious disease and public health scientists and professionals, says it is “essential our political leaders work together and use their influence to minimise the impact of the virus in our community”.

“Although it is election year, we insist politicians resist the urge to scaremonger in an attempt to score points in the media.

“Instead, they should use their moments in the spotlight to amplify messages of our health system’s preparedness and how New Zealanders can individually make a difference at this critical time.”

The editorial moots the creation of a cross-party coronavirus taskforce as one way to ensure cooperation, while also warning against the spread of any misinformation regarding the virus.

“When people are scared or ill-informed, they aren’t at their best. When they are well-informed they can make a huge difference both as individuals and as members of the wider community.”

“Politicking and criticising these professionals who are working hard on behalf of the country does nothing more than undermine them and public confidence in our system.”

Political attacks are also damaging to the health experts who are monitoring the rapidly changing situation and providing “pragmatic, evidence-based advice on a regular basis”, the article says.

“Politicking and criticising these professionals who are working hard on behalf of the country does nothing more than undermine them and public confidence in our system.”

The Government has taken aim at the National Party over its critiques of the New Zealand response; in a speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said “scaremongering and knee jerk reactions are not what we need right now”.

Robertson also traded verbal blows on the issue with National finance spokesman Paul Goldsmith in Question Time later that day, with Goldsmith asking: “Is [Robertson] saying that it is inappropriate in some way for the Opposition to ask serious questions about the speed and timeliness of the Government’s response to this serious economic challenge for this country?”

“Far from it. The Opposition is entitled to ask serious questions. Where we have concerns is where people contribute to panic-buying type responses, where we hear from the Opposition a fixation on wanting to attach blame for an issue that, quite clearly, is driven by a global health crisis,” Robertson responded.

Speaking to Newsroom, University of Otago professor David Murdoch –  one of the editorial’s signatories – said it was “a bit of a quiet message” to politicians about the need to be constructive rather than unnecessarily negative.

“There is a real need for having some national unity, and there’s a concern in election year that there’s a bit of temptation for point scoring…in a crisis we all need to work together.”

Simon Bridges says the Opposition has a duty to New Zealanders to assess how the Government is handling the coronavirus response. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

He cited National MP David Bennett’s comments in support of panic buying as among recent remarks that had caused concern among the group.

The editorial was not intended to dampen robust discussions, but to point out that those talks needed to be based on evidence and not anecdotes.

“This is a time which is different from normal, and this is a time when we really need to work together – in fact there’s a lot to gain from doing that, and it’s the idea that actually there are constructive discussions in the right context, in the right place, not necessarily point scoring.”

Murdoch said political attacks were also a distraction for healthcare workers who were working “exceptionally hard” to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

“What is often not apparent is the fact that when there’s criticism of the government in situations like this, the people at the coalface, the health professionals feel it, and they feel it’s directed at them.”

He believed the health system had been working well to date in the response, but acknowledged there were “some pretty difficult decisions” that would need to be made soon.

“The country is doing well and it’s really just the appreciation that there’s so many unknowns there and certainly [in] any system, there could be stress if things got to a certain level.”

In a written statement responding to the editorial, National leader Simon Bridges said: “There are a lot of areas where we will agree with the Government and we will support them.

 “The outbreak of coronavirus is serious and the Opposition has a duty to New Zealanders to assess the way it’s being handled and put forward our positive proposals if the coalition is not acting in the best interests of New Zealanders.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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