As the Government finds resolve and clarity again in its Covid messaging, it needs to offer a weary public some target dates for lessening restrictions, says Peter Dunne

Last week was the worst week for the Government since it came to office in 2017. All four wheels seemed to explode off its Covid-19 response chariot at once.

Rather than her usual confident and assured self, the Prime Minister looked panicked, hesitant, and uncertain and then disappeared off the podium altogether as the week proceeded and the questions became tougher. Worse, she and her Deputy Prime Minister could not even agree publicly on simple questions like toilet arrangements for people holding outdoor barbecues in Auckland.

It led some commentators to predict somewhat prematurely that, coming on the back of recent opinion polls showing declining support for the Labour Party, this was the beginning of the end for the Ardern Government. At the same time, the influential Auckland annual Mood of the Boardroom survey showed a sharp drop in approval of the Government and plummeting ratings for many ministers, although it was quick to note even less support for the National Party. Altogether, last week’s reportage reflected a sense that a distinct change in the political climate was taking place.

For any government, especially this one based so much on political spin, public mood is all important. Mood invariably reflects perception, which quickly becomes reality, and once it changes it becomes a mindset that is hard to alter. In the 1980s, for example, people supported the Lange Labour Government’s economic reforms, not necessarily because they agreed with them or even understood them, but because they felt confident the Government knew what it was doing. Only when that government’s internal divisions rent it asunder after 1987-88 did the public lose confidence that the government knew what it was doing after all, leading to its landslide defeat in 1990.

So it is with Covid-19. A huge part of this Government’s success to date in managing the pandemic has been the public confidence it has been able to build up that it knows what it is doing and that the measures it has taken are working and are right for the times. However, there are clear signs that that is starting to wane with the onset of the Delta variant.

The ongoing resort to lockdowns, at either Levels 2, 3 or 4, with arbitrary boundaries and ever-changing micro-restrictions is beginning to take its toll. While the focus of attention has understandably been on Auckland, the impact has spread across the whole country, given Auckland’s size. Many people living far away from Auckland are just as affected because they have family or elderly relatives living in Auckland that they cannot visit while the restrictions persist.

Equally taxing of public tolerance is the rigid and cumbersome state detention system, otherwise known as MIQ, which is so cruelly, mercilessly, and needlessly separating New Zealand families. Besides, MIQ too often appears to be the place from which the virus has escaped into the community.

The dramatic increase in vaccination levels is welcome, although there is still some way to go. But even that contains its own sting – many of the now fully vaccinated are becoming increasingly frustrated that they cannot return to a more normal way of life because they are being held hostage by those who have not yet been, or refuse to be, vaccinated. The overdue introduction of vaccine mandates should help persuade those still hesitant of the need to get vaccinated, so they can be part of normal life again in the future.

At the same time, we are hearing and seeing stories of how other countries in Europe, Asia and the Pacific are dropping restrictions and opening borders once again (though not from state television which curiously seems loath to report them for fear of upsetting the government narrative). The Prime Minister was even talking admiringly of Denmark earlier this week, which her government was deriding only a couple of weeks ago for dropping Covid-19 restrictions.

It is hard to deny that there is a slowly mounting public feeling that the current approach to dealing with Covid-19 is running out of steam, which plaintive calls from the Covid Recovery Minister Chris Hipkins, to “stay the course” for “just a little longer” are not quelling. Indeed, if anything, they currently serve to infuriate, rather to inspire.

Against that backdrop, last week’s events, which more than one commentator described as an “omnishambles”, were a disaster. At times, the Government seemed to have lost the plot, while at other times to be missing in action altogether. All the lack of leadership did was fuel speculation, rumour, and uncertainty.

This week, though, clearly shaken by what happened, the Government has shown more resolve and more of the style and determination that has served it so well over the past 18 months or so. Time will tell, though, whether that will be sufficient to restore the public confidence that was so shaken last week.

The reason for this lies less with the Government’s actual performance, than it does with the issues which underpin it. Officially, New Zealand remains wedded to the elimination approach to dealing with Covid-19. However, all the signs are that it is in the process of being abandoned, although the Government will not yet admit as much. The Prime Minister now talks openly of “suppressing” or “getting on top of” the virus in Auckland, while retaining the elimination approach for now for the rest of the country. Realists, and one suspects, the Prime Minister, know that approach is at best a holding one and that it is only a matter of time until “suppression” and by implication, living with the virus, will become the norm across the country.

Most New Zealanders would probably accept that approach, so long as it carried the reasonable expectation that, alongside mounting vaccination rates, we could look forward to relatively normal Christmas holidays and re-joining the world of more relaxed international borders and travel from the start of next year. The Prime Minister has seemed to imply as much in her own comments from time to time.

However, that ambition is being held back, not by the spread of the virus itself, but by the increasingly strident voices of the epidemiologists ever more incessantly hectoring the Government to retain at all costs their preferred elimination strategy, which the Government seems to be moving so steadily away from. Ridiculous comments from some of them – such as people should forget about booking summer holidays – do not help compliance with the restrictions already in place. All they do is rile the “no-one is going to tell me what I can and cannot do” feeling latent among so many New Zealanders and make it more difficult to uphold reasonable compliance.

The best thing these academics could now do to assist New Zealand’s approach is offer their advice privately to ministers, rather than through the news media to which so many of them seem to have become addicted. New Zealanders have got beyond being lectured and frightened – they understand what needs to be done, and now just want to get back to normal a life as soon as possible and to play their reasonable part in doing so.

That is why the Government’s message needs to be even more specific and clear than it has been to date. It certainly needs to constantly reinforce the “don’t hesitate, vaccinate” message, and point out far more loudly that the overwhelming majority of those getting Covid-19 at present or being hospitalised because of it have not been vaccinated. It needs to keep declaring loudly and clearly that people who are vaccinated are most unlikely to contract Covid-19, let alone end up in hospital, or even die from it.

But, above all, it needs to set some specific goals (for some unfathomable reason targets remains a dirty word for the Prime Minister) for when restrictions will be removed, and borders reopened. That will not only incentivise people to speed up vaccination levels but will also hold out the prospect of a tangible reward for doing so. Hope is a powerful motivating emotion, and the Government needs to be more overtly encouraging reasonable hope for the future as the next few weeks unfold.

Until and unless that happens, no matter how much the Government improves its communication act, or what special events are planned, the country’s Covid-19 response will continue to look directionless and aimless, the surest of all breeding grounds for uncertainty and failing public confidence.

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