The Spinoff: Is the Ardern Government’s kindness mantra beginning to fray?

Originally published by The Spinoff

The breaches that have put Auckland back into lockdown have sparked anger across the country, but the Prime Minister says there’s nothing she can do about people breaking the rules – that’s up to you. Justin Giovannetti reports.

Jacinda Ardern says she understands the country is “upset, frustrated and angry” with people who have ignored Covid-19 restrictions and sent Auckland into lockdown, but no new powers will be coming for police.

The Opposition says there need to be fines and real punishments for people who don’t follow the rules. Health workers also need to follow up far more frequently with families in self-isolation, something they say only happens sporadically.

The Prime Minister has found herself in a difficult position. A key to the country’s successful response to Covid-19 so far has been a population that overwhelmingly gets tested, stays home and protects itself.

However, with new, more contagious variants of the disease spreading and the possibility of fatigue setting in after a year of vigilance, Ardern is now contending with what happens when the few imperil the many.

The Government’s solution so far has been to ramp up the language of disappointment and to enlist the population to do the same. New Zealanders have been asked to tell their family and co-workers to do better when they don’t follow the rules.

“With a full understanding of human fallibility, it is not appropriate and it is not okay for members of the team of five million to let the rest of us down,” said Ardern, speaking in the Beehive theatrette. In starker terms, she reminded her audience that Covid kills. “None of us think that this is tolerable”.

The Prime Minister herself used a thesaurus worth of synonyms for upset yesterday, describing the country, the Cabinet and her view on a few Aucklanders who have violated restrictions.

What we now know is that the latest family cluster is linked to an earlier one through two women who went for a walk, despite the fact Auckland was in alert level 3 and both lived with Papatoetoe High School students, meaning the households should have been in strict isolation. A few days later, one woman, whose daughter was a classmate and close contact of the first case, tested positive for Covid-19, as did three other family members, and didn’t tell contact tracers about the walk until well after the other woman and her family were infected.

Within that other family, despite households connected to Papatoetoe High School being told to stay in isolation, one man kept living his life. He went out for two days after losing his sense of taste and smell – one of the clearest signs of a Covid-19 infection. Then he went for a test, going to the gym straight after. It came back positive.

Problems with self-isolation created one of the first tests of the Government’s trust-based approach to fighting the virus. That was early in the pandemic when returning New Zealanders were told to self-isolate at home on their return to the country. Many didn’t. Managed isolation and quarantine was created in response.

Police have the power to write tickets and warn rule breakers. They’ve also been told to exercise discretion. So far, they’ve used restraint, writing very few if any tickets for Covid-19 offenders. The Prime Minister says she won’t tell the police what to do, but last night, NZ Police issued a statement saying they were able to investigate alleged breaches only if they’d received information from the Ministry of Health – which in this case they haven’t.

The Prime Minister and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield were also at pains yesterday to explain that they don’t really rely on a system of trust after all. As Ardern told reporters, “we do check on people”. However, who gets checked and how frequently isn’t clear.

Bloomfield said health staff aren’t afraid to use police when they need help tracking people down, but they haven’t asked recently. Contact tracers recently spent a week trying to find a family through phone calls, only to have one of the daughters show up at a testing centre and return a positive swab. Asked about the delay yesterday, Bloomfield said staff were preparing to ask police for help in that case.

The sense of unease permeating Wellington’s parliamentary precinct this week isn’t what was initially planned. This is a recess week for Parliament, where ministers and MPs were expected to travel the country and spread good news to their constituents. Instead, many are hunkered down in Auckland, including the Opposition leader, while others are now contending with some seeds of doubt towards the Government’s Covid response.

When Covid-19 flares up, there’s a pattern to how the Government generally responds: a flaw in the system is exposed, the public and Opposition demand action, the Government eventually admits error under the guise of lessons learned and patches up the system. The first two steps have already taken place, the Prime Minister has now signalled not to expect a third. That’s up to the police, an independent body.

This has presented both a moral and political opportunity for the Opposition. The National Party is now taking aim at the Prime Minister’s kindness banner as it appears increasingly threadbare.

There’s no call from the official Opposition to shift away from the elimination strategy, but sensing the public’s outrage, leader Judith Collins and her lieutenants are asking for toughness to be added alongside the kindness.

“The Government has made it clear that they expect enforcement to take place. I think they need to ramp up the checking that goes on – they insist that happens but it seems to be reasonably sporadic,” said Chris Bishop, the National Party’s Covid-19 spokesman. “I get the message to tell your mates, tell your friends to follow the rules, but there should also be consequences when people don’t follow the rules,” Bishop added. He said that fines should be a last resort, but once police start enforcing the law and handing out tickets, more people will begin to follow the rules.

On a bright note, the first three cases from Auckland’s current Valentine’s Day cluster have now recovered.

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