Covid 19 Delta outbreak: The week the Government’s world-beating Covid response lost its way

Originally published on The Spinoff

OPINION: Jacinda Ardern won countless plaudits for leading New Zealand through the pandemic with decisiveness, resolve, and exceptional, crisp communications. Last week, it left the building.

Leaks are a perennial nuisance for people in politics, but not usually like this. An innocuous question about the easing of restrictions for locked down Auckland – when you visit a friend for an outdoor, distanced catchup, can you use their toilet? – generated contradictory answers from the two superstars of New Zealand’s Covid response, Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield, last Monday, and the confusion trickled through the week.

Of itself, so what. It’s hardly the biggest deal in the world; the prospects of a police officer frog-marching you from the bathroom are not high. But the permissibility of Aucklanders peeing in their friends’ toilets encapsulated something wider. New Zealand had arrived at a scenario so familiar around the world these last 18 months. Decision making on the hoof. Flip-flopping on rules. Muddled, muddy messaging.

The four-tier alert level system, the backbone of New Zealand’s response plan, suddenly had a three-step “road map” stapled on top of Auckland’s level three settings. According to this new plan, Auckland would move up several steps in order to arrive at a lower level, as if it were designed by MC Escher.

The prime minister referred to the elimination strategy in the past tense. The director general of health said elimination remained the approach. The endless debate around whether elimination remains the lodestar is very often semantic and self-defeating, but the critical point, as Covid response minister Chris Hipkins acknowledged subsequently, is that the days of zero community cases in Auckland were almost certainly over. The goals for Auckland and the rest of the country are for the short-term categorically different. That much is clear. Why else would Northland and a large chunk of Waikato be as of this moment under a stricter lockdown than the city that yesterday recorded 56 new cases?

As best I can understand it, the strategy seems now to approach Auckland like a shook-up bottle of soda. Step one: unscrew the cap a smidgen, in the hope it doesn’t spill over. If that works out OK, continue to step two: release it a little further. The metaphor, of course, fails. If the soda explodes from the bottle, it does so some days after you loosen the top. The delta case numbers since last Monday: 29, 24, 39, 29, 44, 34, 60.

Those don’t yet reflect the easing of restrictions on Wednesday. That’s why Shaun Hendy, who has led modelling work that has informed so much of the government’s response, said last night “they need to start planning for the possibility that we’ll need a circuit-breaker”. As the line continues north – and the “infectious in the community” rates alone suggest they will – the resulting pressure on New Zealand’s already strained intensive care units will quickly hit crisis level, endangering not just people with Covid, but anyone who needs a bed or requires care from a person or a part of a hospital redeployed in surge plans.

Ardern insisted that the easing of level three restrictions in Auckland was based on public health advice. Bloomfield backed her on that. The prime minister even went so far as to suggest that there was no politics involved at all. Of course there are politics involved, as there have been throughout. Of course she knows that.

Part of the thinking that informed the changes announced last Monday was the knowledge that the virus had insinuated itself into some of the most marginalised communities in Auckland, in transitional and emergency accommodation, among the homeless, where contact tracing is a colossal challenge, and where alert levels often matter little. On that front, Aotearoa’s luck had run out.

They knew, too, that lockdown fatigue was setting in. The social, economic, mental health impacts are real. And they at least sensed a slippage in compliance; though even if you accept that hunch, Ardern’s suggestion that loosening restrictions would halt people that were pushing them from pushing them further seems fanciful. Increasing the speed limit is never going to reduce the average speed.

But towering above everything: delta. New South Wales had tried and failed to extinguish the super-contagious demon. Victoria had tried and failed. Singapore, Vietnam: same. The plan had always been to move towards opening up, bringing with it some new approaches, as outlined in the Sir David Skegg blueprint “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World”, unveiled just a few days before a single community case upended everything. The outbreak had “accelerated” the road map unveiled on Monday, said Ardern. The way it was laid out, however, suggested that was more frantic than expeditious.

The criticism, consternation and plain old confusion was obvious before the 4pm press conference had finished on Monday. Ardern and Bloomfield were both, uncharacteristically, irritable. The public health experts were polite but dismayed. Some of the most dependable Labour advocates were appalled. Ardern’s former chief of staff Neale Jones called it “a long and confusing surrender note”. The most chilling condemnations came from te ao Māori. Advocates including Rawiri Jansen and Tina Ngata pointed not just to the low levels of vaccination that left Māori most acutely at risk of the spread of the coronavirus, but the failures of pākehā institutions to trust Māori communities who might have averted that looming disaster.

The days that followed were designed, no doubt, to shed more light on the road ahead. They served also to shed light on what hadn’t been done during the months of Covid-free paradise. Tuesday saw a presentation, led by Ardern, on Covid passports for domestic use. It showed some work had been done there, but not enough. As for vaccine mandates, the legal scaffolding is still in a pile on the truck. The government wants all teachers vaccinated before Auckland schools resume, as is planned for a week from now. That path is riddled with potholes.

If the focus on vaccine passports, and Ardern’s emphasis on Fomo (get vaccinated now or risk missing out on a summer festival) suggested a commitment to righting the vessel, that’s where it ended. Perplexingly – in a week of upheaval, stress and confusion, as Covid bled to the north and south of Auckland, as case numbers curved upward, as the unacceptable plight of our ICUs became clearer – we would not see Ardern or Bloomfield on the Beehive stage again. One of the most striking illustrations of a crumbling in communications strategy came in the Wednesday 1pm briefing from Chris Hipkins and director of public health Carolyn McElnay, when the decision to change the advice on gaps between a first and second dose of the Pfizer vaccine from six weeks back to three, something of real public health importance, was issued almost as an afterthought.

Thursday brought a focus on testing – albeit a press conference that had to be shunted back to make way for Chris Hipkins’ announcement that the Waikato level three area was doubling in size. David Murdoch’s report on testing was in, and the government was pushing forward with more use of antigen rapid testing as well as saliva samples for PCR tests. Murdoch’s finding that the government had been “too slow” on both fronts was an almighty understatement.

One year and two weeks ago, Heather Simpson and Brian Roche presented to the government a commissioned review of surveillance and testing that urged “all efforts should be made to introduce saliva testing as soon as possible”. Could a barrage of at-home tests early in the delta outbreak have helped get a ring around it? Could the option of saliva testing have seen even one nose-anxious person early in the transmission chain come forward to get tested? Might either situation have trimmed back the outbreak in its infancy? After all, there were days when it fell to single figures; a small difference could be big. Should we not be, as Singapore is, providing antigen tests to Aucklanders who are going to work every day? Remember, this is complementary to, not instead of, the PCR testing. It’s another layer in the Swiss cheese model. The foot dragging has awful echoes of the indefensible delay in introducing regular testing of border workers to be introduced over a year ago.

And Friday? There was no media conference on Friday. Nor Saturday. Nor Sunday. Nature abhors a vacuum but Winston Peters loves it. The former deputy prime minister popped up on Saturday morning like a Facebook comment, making some extraordinary and unevidenced claims about the Northland case and her companion. When they say “take your level with you”, Peters may be under the misapprehension that his level is parliamentary privilege, but the absence of daily briefings made it harder to shut down the rumours.

Throughout the week the clamour from New Zealanders abroad, virtually sardined in the nation’s offshore lobby, grew. A legal challenge is being prepared by the Grounded Kiwis group. While the government has disingenuously hinted that New Zealanders wanting to return are really just after an elaborate weekend on the beach, they’ve done nothing serious to look at purpose built facilities. Yes, the new variant, and all that, but when we look back in years to come on the Covid response (or when the inevitable Royal Commission does) there will be a lot of praise for smart decisions. And, I would bet, total bafflement at the fact that a full year and a half on, we continue to house the majority of our arrivals from abroad bang in the middle of our most populated city. Delta must not believe its luck.

One of the most damning verdicts on last week came from one of our most admired public health experts, Michael Baker. “I think this is a week we’d all rather forget in terms of New Zealand’s Covid-19 response because I think it’s been a disaster,” he told Newshub.

Across 18 months, Ardern has been lionised for a world-beating response. She was judged best in the world by PR people. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s pugnacious former head of press, extolled “a masterclass in crisis communications”. Those plaudits, all well earned, don’t collapse under one poor press conference or one dismal week. In some of the international coverage, such as the Australian Daily Mail’s “How New Zealand’s out-of-control Delta outbreak and harsh lockdowns could bring down Jacinda Ardern”, well, you can smell the schadenfreude on their breath. But there’s a reason New Zealand, together with a handful of other countries, has been the envy of the world: thousands of lives have been saved.

Yes, the border has been fortified and many have faced economic hardship, but the overall social and economic hardship, and the restrictions to basic liberties, have been mostly less than in places where Covid gained a grip. It may be too late to put the delta genie back in the bottle for Auckland. But, as Baker also observed, despite the disaster of a week, the clarity of message that vanished last week “can be recovered quite quickly”.

Ardern is reportedly planning to tear up the alert level system altogether, and replace it with a traffic light system that jettisons lockdowns and wraps in proof of vaccination. The challenge will be to recapture the crisp clarity of the first days of the Covid response: lay out the rationale, detail the structures being put in place, and avoid the kaleidoscope of mixed messages and scrambled slogans.

And, as should go without saying, communications can only ever be excellent when they sit atop a thorough, comprehensive and intelligent plan. A year and a half ago the brightest and the best of the public service gathered together on a couple of floors to lead the all-of-government response to an unprecedented crisis. Over time they’ve returned to their old desks, and a sense of Wellington business-as-usual has resumed. Are the smartest people, or enough of them, running the New Zealand Covid response now? Because as the horrible last 50 days of lockdown, and the messy last week of the response show unequivocally, this is not a time for business as usual.

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