Covid-19: Where has Jacinda Ardern, the great communicator gone? – Stuff.co.nz

Posted: November 1, 2021 at 6:44 am

OPINION: When National shadow treasurer Andrew Bayly came down from nearly two months lockdown in Auckland a couple of weeks ago, he got a shock.

The Auckland-based MP of Port Waikato came down to deliver the National Partys alternative economic package for a post-lockdown New Zealand.

Bayly, sporting a tan line on his upper forehead courtesy of finally being able to get a haircut in level 2 in Wellington, was there to talk about the plan. He was clearly a bit shell-shocked by what ensued.

Instead of primarily being asked about the plan and talking about how Aucklanders are doing it tough, he, Judith Collins and Chris Bishop, were bombarded with questions about how Nationals plan to reopen which it would do once 85 per cent of the population were fully vaccinated - would stop cases of Covid from blowing up, or getting out around New Zealand.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, Chris Hipkins, and Peeni Henare introduce a new traffic light system when dealing with Covid-19 onwards. The announcement was made in the Banquet Hall in Parliament.

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Bayly, who had spent much of lockdown doing electorate work, helping desperate voters and businesses navigate alert level rules, gain travel exemptions and generally keep afloat during lockdown as have all the other MPs in Auckland across all parties told me afterwards that if you went around his electorate asking those sorts of questions, youd probably get belted.

Even yesterday he said he was staggered by what he sees as a lack of understanding of what Aucklanders and those in Waikato are going through.

Baylys story is by no means unique. And while he clearly wants to talk his book and gin up Nationals support, his point was really more of a personal observation.

MPs in Auckland across the political divide are finding the same very real and personal difficulties being caused by Covid. But Baylys case is interesting because he can see, first hand, the difference between those living further south where level 2 has been a way of life for over seven weeks now.

The risk profiles are different and peoples incentives are opposed. Whereas in Auckland, most people just want life to get back to normal, most people outside of Auckland want Covid to stay where it is, at least until the new traffic light system comes in with 90 per cent of the population vaccinated, and lockdowns consigned to the rearview mirror.

Stuff crunched the numbers on Friday and on current trajectory, Auckland will be at 90 per cent across all three district health board areas on November 27, while the last health board in the rest of the country currently Tairwhiti based in Gisborne will hit the mark on January 18.

It should be noted that those projections are just that, and assume that the vaccination rates keep rising to 90 per cent which is certainly not assured.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Todd McClay, Michael Woodhouse, Andrew Bayly and Judith Collins, when National launched its policy plan on getting through post Covid 19 lockdowns.

It points to the fact that the next couple of months will be crunchy for a government and PM that both seem to have lost their communications mojo.

In the early stages of the outbreak last year, Ardern won praise rightly so for her clear communication and leadership during the early stages of the pandemic. A lockdown was new, uncharted and very scary territory and the way the comms were managed was first class and clear.

But over the past few months that communication has become much less clear, more jargon-ridden and the policy settings more confusing.

In part that has been because the politics of Covid have fundamentally changed. Prior to the Delta outbreak, the Government did more or less control both the virus and the agenda. Once Delta came in, it basically took over. A plan to reopen New Zealand to the world and start to manage Covid as endemic in the community was crafted. It has now been brought forward rapidly.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

In the early stages of the outbreak last year, Ardern won praise rightly so for her clear communication and leadership during the early stages of the pandemic.

There are also five main moving parts of the response to Covid: the alert system, the step system in Auckland, the new traffic light system, the vaccine roll-out, and MIQ.

But all those moving parts, with their own problems, arent well understood by the public and havent really been well explained.

When the step system was announced in Auckland whereby if public health conditions allowed, restrictions would be reduced under the current alert level framework the reason was that the Government had looked at what happened in New South Wales and Victoria and realised that people need some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, or they just start breaking rules. So limited outdoor gatherings were allowed.

It was a strong point that had the advantage of being true.

STUFF

Auckland will move into the "red" setting of the Government's new Covid-19 traffic light system when the region hits 90 per cent double vaccine doses, even if the rest of the country hasn't hit the target.

However, the announcement ended up with the PM not talking about that. Instead, clearly rattled by questions around potential spread of Covid, she ended up reassuring New Zealanders that this was still a very hard lockdown!

This small example points to a bigger problem that has not been confronted. The prime minister has never really fully fronted and given a speech that puts risk and trade-offs at the front of peoples minds.

No-one should pretend this is easy. On the one hand, most of the country will be facing lockdowns if there is a decent-sized outbreak before the 90 per cent vaccination target is reached, but once everyone is vaccinated, lockdowns will finish and will be replaced by the traffic light system.

The Government has massaged the overall strategy for example the PM didn't front a 1pm press conference on Thursday when Christchurch had its first Covid cases in about a year. But there hasnt been a clear-enough public statement about the fact that, come November, case numbers wont matter. Covid getting around the country wont matter; only serious cases in hospital will. Not only that, but that people should expect it.

There has been an unwillingness, so far, to level with the public about how the risks are going to fundamentally change. Clearly, partly owing to Arderns personal caution, the Government is going to take a lower-risk approach compared to most other countries and jurisdictions that have opened up. But that has never been explained clearly.

It also reflects some of the internal politics in the Labour Party when cases do rise, it is going to be their people who are more affected. Like any sickness or social ill, Covid will affect those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder more than the top.

That pressure was one of the drivers behind the push for specific vaccine targets for Mori and Pacific populations. While a laudable aim, that would have been disastrous a point that most parties in Parliament quietly agree on because instead of fully vaccinated people potentially getting cross with some areas of the country, instead ire might have been directed squarely at ethnic communities if their vaccine rates had remained below 90 per cent.

But that notwithstanding, the Government, as with the rest of the country, is in a Covid halfway house: a waiting game until the new traffic light system which will actually be pretty straightforward once the population is vaccinated comes in.

But in the meantime, navigating a world in which different parts of the country want very different things will be very tough, and will require both the PMs communication skills and the fast policy to back it up.

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Covid-19: Where has Jacinda Ardern, the great communicator gone? - Stuff.co.nz

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