First, let’s look on the bright side. No one in New Zealand has died of Covid-19 since the end of May. If I were a government minister under pressure from the media, I would take every opportunity to point this out to my tormentors.
The static death toll puts into perspective the outcry over testing failures at the border. By international standards, New Zealand is still doing very well in combating the virus, despite what Donald Trump says. We need only look across the ditch to Victoria to see how much worse things might be.
As of last night, there were 90 active cases and six people in hospital, none of them critical. Most governments would be overjoyed to boast figures like that.
In fact death rates from all causes in New Zealand are lower than usual, a statistical quirk that experts attribute to the likelihood that the lockdown at the start of winter arrested the circulation of germs and viruses that might otherwise have taken the lives of susceptible people.
So things could be far worse. But after that, the positives quickly run out, and you have to wonder whether we’re in this fortunate position through sheer luck rather than good management.
The self-congratulatory buzz that accompanied the announcement that we’d gone for 100 days with no Covid-19 cases turned out to be short-lived. In the 10 days since then, we’ve been bombarded daily – in fact often several times daily – with a litany of oversights and failings.
The big picture is one of a fiasco. Consider the following.
By common consent, the Covid-19 tracing app is a clunker. It seemed to work fine on my phone until several days ago, when it suddenly went into meltdown. After repeated attempts to re-activate it, I gave up.
The police checkpoints around Auckland are a joke, massively disrupting daily lives and economic activity for no apparent purpose. In one 24-hour period more than 50,000 vehicles were stopped but only 676 were turned back. That means people spent hours trapped in stationary cars and trucks for an almost negligible success rate against supposed rule-breakers.
Even worse, people with valid reasons for travelling – for example, trying to get to work or deliver essential goods – have reportedly been turned back or made to wait days for the required paperwork. Others, meanwhile, have been waved through. It all seems totally haphazard and arbitrary, with decisions made on the spot by officers who don’t seem to be working to any clear and consistent criteria.
Police credibility took a big hit during the previous lockdown as a result of hopelessly confused messages about what was and wasn’t permissible. Not only were some of the rules irrational and imposed in a rush of control-freakery, but they seemed to change by the day. This was compounded by the perception that police were picking the low-hanging fruit – for example, turning back solo cyclists going for a harmless ride in the country, yet ignoring Black Lives Matter protests that flagrantly defied social distancing rules and turning a blind eye to (and worse, even endorsing) illegal vigilante checkpoints manned by iwi activists.
The image of the police is unlikely to have been enhanced by the latest shambles. Didn’t it occur to them to have a contingency plan in case they needed to control movement in and out of Auckland? You’d have thought it would. But if such a plan existed, it surely wouldn’t have taken several days before they had the bright idea of setting aside a dedicated lane for essential freight traffic. By any yardstick, the police performance should be marked as a fail.
Then there was the panicked decision – or at least it looked that way – to test 12,000 port workers and truck drivers within a time frame that was laughably unachievable (and perhaps just as well, since it would have caused more business chaos).
And once again, there were mixed messages about eligibility for testing – a problem that first became apparent when the country went into lockdown in March. The official message then was “test, test, test” – yet people seeking tests, including those showing Covid-19 symptoms, were repeatedly turned away. And it’s still happening.
Glaring discrepancies between what was being said at Beehive press conferences and what was actually happening “on the ground” have been a recurring feature throughout the coronavirus crisis. Many were highlighted by Newshub’s investigative reporter Michael Morrah. He revealed, for example, that nurses and health workers were said to have ample protective equipment when clearly they didn’t. Similarly, Morrah exposed a yawning credibility gap between what the government was saying about the availability of influenza vaccine and what was being reported by frustrated doctors and nurses.
Somewhere the truth was falling down a hole, but the public trusted in the assurances given by the prime minister and Ashley Bloomfield. Many will now be thinking that trust was misplaced.
The most abject cockup of all was the failure (again exposed by Morrah, though strangely not picked up by the wider media for several days) to test workers at the border. Former Health Minister David Clark told the public weeks ago that border workers, including susceptible people such as bus drivers ferrying inbound airline passengers to isolation hotels, would be routinely tested. This seemed an obvious and fundamental precaution, but we now know it didn’t happen. Nearly two thirds of border workers – the people most likely to contract and spread the coronavirus in the community – were never tested. Some epidemiologists believe the Covid-19 virus was bubbling away undetected for weeks before the current resurgence.
On one level this can be dismissed as simple incompetence, but it goes far beyond that. People might be willing to excuse incompetence up to a point, but they are not so ready – and neither should they be – to forgive spin, deception and dissembling. Misinformation can’t be blithely excused as a clumsy misstep, still less as “dissonance” (to use Bloomfield’s creative English). On the contrary, if misinformation is deliberate then it raises critical issues of trust and transparency.
At a time of crisis, people are entitled to expect their leaders and officials to be truthful with them, especially when the public, in turn, is expected to play its part by making substantial social and economic sacrifices. If the government doesn’t uphold its side of this compact, it forfeits the right to demand that the public co-operate. That’s the situation in which we now appear to find ourselves. The bond of trust that united the government and the public in the fight against Covid-19 has been frayed to a point where it’s at risk of breaking.
A watershed moment came for me when I heard political commentator Richard Harman state the unthinkable on Jim Mora’s The Weekend Panel when he called on Bloomfield to resign for misleading his minister.
You could sense the shocked hush in thousands of Labour-voting households, followed by a collective cry of “Noooo!” and a blitzkrieg of anguished emails to RNZ. The pandemic has made Bloomfield a national hero. You can buy tea towels and shopping bags bearing his image. To call for his resignation was the secular equivalent of heresy.
Harman’s statement could have been dismissed as sensationalism or politicking if he were politically aligned or had a history of making provocative claims, but he’s a commentator with a reputation for being neutral and moderate.
To make matters worse, at least from the perspective of Bloomfield’s legion of admirers, Harman’s sentiments were largely echoed by Jane Clifton, another veteran political observer with no axe to grind. While eschewing witch hunts, Clifton said Bloomfield’s ministry had established a pattern of, “if not outright lying, then failing to supply correct information”. These were damning words.
All of this threw a new light on the political controversy that flared in June when Clark was pilloried in the media for supposedly “throwing Bloomfield under the bus”. Questioned about people being released early from quarantine on compassionate grounds without being tested (another extraordinary blunder), Clark said Bloomfield had accepted responsibility for the failure. Media sympathy overwhelmingly lay with Bloomfield; photos showed him standing behind his minister wearing the pained expression of someone who has been wronged but must suffer in dignified silence.
Soon after, Clark resigned in response to the general perception that he had been incompetent in his handling of the crisis. But in hindsight, people might well wonder whether it was he who was thrown under the bus; in effect, made the fall guy for failings by others, including a Ministry of Health head who was possibly considered too popular to be sacrificed.
All of which raises intriguing questions about the exercise of ministerial accountability. Harman said that if Bloomfield had misled current minister Chris Hipkins about border testing, it wasn’t Hipkins who should resign but Bloomfield. But the doctrine of ministerial accountability is usually taken as meaning that ministers must carry the can for actions taken by the departments and officials under their control – as the then Minister of Conservation, Denis Marshall, did after the Cave Creek tragedy of 1995. Marshall was in no way responsible for the erection of the unsafe viewing platform that collapsed, killing 14 people, but he did the honourable thing and resigned anyway.
The rationale behind the principle of ministerial accountability, as I understand it, is that a minister who fears losing his seat in Cabinet is more likely to ensure his officials do their jobs properly. It’s a way of ensuring discipline and accountability down through the chain of command.
The question then arises: if the much-maligned Clark accepted responsibility for failings in dealing with the pandemic, why shouldn’t Hipkins? Could the explanation be that Hipkins is generally well liked and acknowledged as a competent minister, but Clark wasn’t? That’s the impression we’re left with. But that’s not how the doctrine of ministerial accountability is supposed to work. Denis Marshall didn’t get away with blaming those under him and neither should Hipkins, or even Jacinda Ardern.
The wider backdrop to this scandal, as pointed out earlier, is that from the very start of the Covid-19 crisis there has been a pattern of contradictory messages, but the daily tag-team act of Ardern and Bloomfield, and latterly Hipkins and Bloomfield, was remarkably effective in assuring the public that things were under control. Morrah’s reports quoting disaffected front-line health workers were met with bland denials by Bloomfield. We believed him because we wanted to, and because he seemed up-front, personable and plausible.
We’re now forced to confront the possibility that we were sometimes being fibbed to, or alternatively that Bloomfield was being fibbed to by officials further down the food chain. That realisation will give no pleasure to anyone other than the government’s political opponents, for whom it’s pure gold, and those who have resented the authoritarian overtones of the lockdown from the start. But as Harman and Clifton pointed out on Jim Mora’s show, trust in the government is never more crucial than at a time like this. Most people want to believe they are being told the truth and not fed spin. That’s the quid-pro-quo for the public compliance which the government must rely on to keep the pandemic under control.
As I said at the outset, we shouldn’t lose sight of the positives, nor of the heroic efforts made by the countless health sector workers doing their utmost to keep the virus in check. That’s the flip side to the many blunders. But public faith in our leaders has been eroded and many New Zealanders think their trust has been betrayed – all of which has left the government looking a lot more vulnerable than it seemed a couple of weeks ago.