It is likely that Auckland’s two February lockdowns will be the last New Zealand will see for some time. They may even be the last lockdowns to be endured during this pandemic.
This is not because the Covid-19 virus has been conquered – we are still some way from that – but because lockdowns are becoming increasingly difficult to enforce and for people to take seriously. And, if the change over the last couple of weeks in the tenor of media coverage is anything to go by, they are becoming increasingly unpopular.
Just as the Police Commissioner prudently observed during his recent stoush with senior National MP Simon Bridges that effective policing today relies on public consent, so too with effective government.
In western liberal societies like ours governments can only govern effectively with the consent of the public. If the public loses confidence, trust or belief in what a government is doing, the government quickly loses public consent, and consequently finds it increasingly difficult to impose its will on the public.
During the two recent lockdowns, there were clear signs of this occurring in and around Auckland. The general level of compliance was far less than in last year’s two lockdowns. There were more signs of people not taking the alert level restrictions too seriously. Some seemed unaware of what the requirements even were, while others just ignored them altogether.
In large part this was due to complacency. After a year of the Government running a generally successful national virus elimination strategy many people did not see what the problem was – there were no cases to speak of after all, so what was the fuss about? Others were simply tired of having to go through it all again.
The second lockdown exacerbated the problems emerging during the first. Its imposition late on a Saturday evening looked hurried and panicked, and at odds with the Government’s view last year that we would not yo-yo in and out of lockdown every other week.
It was the same with the messaging, with serious questions being raised whether those families at the heart of the situation got sufficiently clear information about what they should and should not do.
On top of this, for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago, a large segment of the media finally started asking tough questions about what was going on, instead of just meekly parroting the latest government media release.
The last three weeks or so have been the worst by a long way of the Government’s previously highly successful and precise handling of and communication about the Covid-19 campaign.
Moreover, statements from ministers, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment were confusing. On occasion they were downright contradictory, other times they simply contained incorrect advice.
In short, both these latest lockdowns had all of the air of shambles about them. The last three weeks or so have been the worst by a long way of the Government’s previously highly successful and precise handling of and communication about the Covid-19 campaign.
To complicate things further, it is not only the media that has woken up from its long sleep. The general public now seems increasingly irritated as well.
All of which suggests it is going to be very difficult for the Government to impose another lockdown anytime soon, even if the circumstances may require it.
There is simply not the support that there was a year ago, and New Zealanders are unlikely to tolerate the Government adopting tougher steps to enforce more lockdowns.
Now, in these circumstances it would normally be expected that a government would take stock of the changing situation and work out how it needs to adjust its approach to regain the public consent it previously enjoyed. However, the signs that this Government is preparing to do so are mixed at best.
What is looking more likely, at least in the short term, is a general hunkering down around the approach it has taken over the last twelve months. Hence the unfortunately presented message at the weekend from the usually prudent Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare that the only truth on Covid-19 that people should take note of is coming from the Government, and the even clumsier comment from a Government backbench MP a day later that the Government does not need to listen to what others may be saying because it is relying on the “science”.
Whether intended or not, both these statements convey a sense of arrogance and closed-mindedness that is the last thing the Government needs right now.
Rather than aloofly ignoring the shift in sentiment in the hope it will just go away, the Government ought to be looking at how it can re-engage effectively with the public that has supported it so loyally to date.
Add to that the recent decisions by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to cancel previously long-term media commitments because of differences with the interviewers, and the picture emerges of a Government retreating from active public critical engagement into its bunker of favourable media that will report it much more the way it wants.
As some media rediscover their customary role to question and hold the government of the day to account, and as the public becomes a combination of more sceptical, recalcitrant and fatigued, an increasingly inwardly focused and defensive Government will find it more and more difficult to keep the public on-side the way it was able to do so successfully over the last twelve months.
People are becoming impatient for a return to normality, and the media increasingly sceptical that the Government knows how to do it. Rather than aloofly ignoring the shift in sentiment in the hope it will just go away, the Government ought to be looking at how it can re-engage effectively with the public that has supported it so loyally to date.
Aside from this deteriorating dynamic, the bigger problem remains, namely that there is still some way to go before we can say with any confidence that the pandemic has been overcome. However, there are encouraging signs abroad. The establishment of mass vaccination programmes in many countries, particularly those using the Pfizer vaccine, appears to be producing dramatic results in terms of lowering community infection levels and building immunities.
The good news for New Zealand is that we have at last been able to secure enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine to give the entire country the required number of doses to be effective. But not so good news is the confirmation that it will now be the latter half of the year before the vaccine even arrives here, let alone when it gets jabbed into people’s arms.
Once that happens, and a level of community immunity is established, the public will expect the impositions like lockdowns, managed isolation, contact tracing, and border closures, that we have grown used to under Covid-19, to start quickly to become things of the past.
The best we have to go on is the Prime Minister’s stated hope that around 80 percent of New Zealanders could be vaccinated by year’s end, meaning we have reached herd immunity, and that we could look to restrictions being eased after that. But that is unlikely to be enough to quell mounting public impatience, especially as other countries start to open up once more.
In the meantime, the Government’s gamble that it can keep things under control until then is naive. People are already starting to chafe at the bit of “just stay the course for a little bit longer, we are nearly there” as the reaction to the last two lockdowns showed.
The mounting problem for the Government is no longer whether or not it is doing the right thing, but how it continues to engage with a public feeling increasingly “over it.” And with the media now becoming more restive about what is or is not happening the Government looks set for a far more challenging time over the rest of this year, than in the previous twelve months.
Despite increasing apathy, people are still expecting leadership from the Government over the pandemic. But that is beginning to falter.
The absence of reasoned, expansive and inclusive discussion with the public about the detail of future plans and intentions is one sign. Retreating more into a defensive shell, and talking from the bunker only to those media outlets known to be uncritical is another. Unless these things change, the Government’s chances of keeping everything under control the way it would like, look increasingly shaky.