Journalists slamming the Government over new cases of Covid-19 are over-reacting, writes Jack Vowles

In the wake of a scattering of new cases from overseas, Stuff journalist Andrea Vance has slammed the Government for setting “allegedly unrealistic expectations” that Covid-19 would be eliminated in New Zealand. She believes the public feel they have been lied to.

Fellow Stuff journalist Tracy Watkins says the “border fiasco” has caused “incalculable damage” and “a massive breach of trust”. John Armstrong, in a column for the 1 News website, describes the situation as “calamitous”.

All are over-reacting.

First, there is no systematic evidence yet about what ‘the public’, in general, feel. Big attendances at recent sporting events suggest little sign of concern. However, what the public may end up feeling is being shaped by current negative journalistic coverage, because journalists are as much opinion leaders as opinion followers.

Second, elimination has been carefully defined: it refers to no new cases of local transmission – “no new cases for a specified period, such as 28 days, and that a high-performing national surveillance system was testing a certain number of people per day, across the country”, including “exemptions for new cases among travellers arriving at the border, so long as they were quarantined until they recovered”.

When I watched the Prime Minister declare on television that we would move from Level 2 to Level 1, I distinctly remember her saying new cases would emerge at the border and we should remain vigilant. Statements of this nature have been repeated regularly since.

Some people have apparently been unkindly critical of returning travellers who have briefly breached quarantine. During Level 4 lockdown we were all expected to play our part, stay at home, minimise social contact and stay within our local area. Police did what they could to discourage and penalise those failing to comply, but the vast majority followed the rules. Is it not too much to expect returning travellers, put into hotels at great expense to the taxpayer, should not do the same?

However, we must understand their situation better. Because of New Zealand’s success in eliminating community transfer of the virus, more and more Kiwis are returning home. Managing those in quarantine is becoming more challenging.

It is obvious hotels are far from ideal places to maintain quarantine. The number available and marginally suitable is limited. Anyone who has stayed in these sorts of hotel will understand the problems. Away from the main concourses, corridors are narrow. Lifts are designed to fit people in together. Keeping people apart in a crowded hotel lobby through which in many cases everyone has to pass is not always easy. People fail to read the signs, end up in the wrong place, and so on.

We can all remember in Level 4 being in situations where it was physically impossible to follow the 2m rule and we had to pass someone more closely, if only briefly. Being stuck in a small hotel room with few opportunities to get out is tedious and for some people a challenge to their mental health. We need to have sympathy for the people in this situation.

Some breach the conditions and congregate socially, but probably a small minority. Security staff cannot be everywhere in a hotel, and if they were, someone would complain about that. We have heard the voices of several complaining returners. The vast majority are presumably coping, tolerating their situation and doing what they are asked to do.

We should also have more understanding and sympathy for the staff, officials and security managing the quarantine. In the circumstances, breaches and errors can happen: they do not mean ‘a flawed system’ or a catastrophe.

Some reasonable and necessary measures have been ignorantly denounced, such as moving people in quarantine who have not yet been tested to hotels in other cities while maintaining strict protocols. New management and administrative processes and security systems have been set up quickly. There has been a temporary shortfall in meeting recently established higher standards for testing the growing number of those in quarantine; probably because doing a test requires training and people with the skills to take on the job are badly needed everywhere. But the general increase in capacity to test and contact-trace has been remarkable. If there are errors, they are reviewed and corrected, systems improve, resources are shifted.

We are assured New Zealand is in a good position to manage and contain any local outbreak, if it occurs. Nearly 6000 tests were conducted on June 20. Only two were positive, both sourced offshore. Another hard lockdown is extremely unlikely.

Compared with the failure to manage Covid-19 in many other countries, New Zealand’s performance remains impressive. Our short sharp lockdown has enabled a return to near normality. Only a few other countries are in our position.

What happens in the future is still uncertain. More needs to be learned about the virus and from the experiences of other countries. Is there any such thing as ‘immunity’? Will there be a vaccine? Will Covid-19 evolve into a less dangerous form? Will more effective treatments for those worst affected be found? Calls for ‘a plan’ and a timetable are premature; scenario scoping is what is required.

This is no time to lose faith in the Government’s response. Political criticism from journalists and the Opposition is all well and good. It does not serve the country well if it undermines the trust, confidence, compliance and cooperation and ‘kindness’ necessary for New Zealanders to work together against Covid-19.

Let’s all calm down, and carry on.

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science and International Relations programme at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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