During difficult political times in the 1960s former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson observed ruefully that “a week is a long time in politics”. Our Prime Minister could be forgiven for thinking similar thoughts at the moment, as she reflects upon recent events in New Zealand.
Barely a week ago, New Zealand was basking in the perceived glories of having no recorded cases of community transmission of Covid19 for over 100 days; a border control and quarantine system that was picking up and testing everyone coming into the country to ensure they were Covid19 free before being allowed to join the general population; a Parliamentary Opposition that seemed all at sea having just undergone its third change of leader since May; and a government seemingly cruising sedately towards re-election by a large margin in an election due in just over five weeks.
Across the country normal pre-Covid19 life had pretty much resumed. Major sports events were up and running with large crowds mixing and mingling closely together as they enjoyed the spectacle. Business was getting back to normal with domestic tourism and the hospitality sector reporting encouraging responses from New Zealanders, almost but not quite making up for the loss of international visitors, and there was increasing talk of travel to the Pacific being possible within just a few months.
Overall, New Zealanders were feeling positive that we had dodged a proverbial bullet. Mocking comparisons were being made to the plight of other countries still struggling with the worst of Covid19, and we thanked ourselves and our government that we were not like Victoria, and that we had followed the “go hard, go early” slogan to become Covid19 free, even though in reality we had done neither.
The discovery of community transmission in Auckland not only rocked the smug complacency coming from the top down and affecting all of us, but also raised blunt, difficult questions that drew uncomfortable answers about how well the “team of five million” had actually been doing. It turns out the border control programme was not watertight after all, with personnel associated with the new arrivals not being tested at all, even though they were being potentially exposed on a daily basis to the virus. And the level of community testing was nothing like the government had led us to believe.
We still do not know how this new outbreak was initiated, bringing into question whether we were ever Covid19 free in the first place, let alone for the 102-day period the government was so proud of. Now, Auckland is back in Level 3 lockdown; major sports and cultural events have been cancelled; regional travel restrictions have returned; businesses and schools are closed once more, and the uncertainty we hoped was behind us has returned. The government has even been forced to defer the election for at least four weeks.
The triumphal march to glory that the election campaign was supposed to be for the government has abruptly stopped; the Opposition has a new spring in its step, although there is still a mighty lot of ground for it to make up to become competitive. For the first time, a hitherto sympathetic media has started asking hard questions about the now obvious policy and administrative failures, and the Prime Minister and her key Ministers are looking a little rattled.
The change in the country’s Covid19 fortunes has been unexpected and abrupt. The impact of that on public opinion is, however, a little more difficult to judge. While public confidence has undoubtedly been shaken over the last week, and compliance with the new rules appears less immediate and thorough than during the earlier lockdowns, it is not yet clear whether people will blame the government for what has happened, or whether they will accept the apparent return of Covid19 as something that was bound to happen, despite the Prime Minister’s earlier boast that we had “eliminated” the virus.
While the election remains strongly Labour’s to lose, whether it turns into something close to a photo-finish, or remains considerably more sedate, will depend on what happens next, and just as importantly, how that is managed. So far, the government has relied on the powerful media images of the Prime Minister and Ministers Hipkins and Woods, aided and abetted by the ubiquitous Dr Bloomfield, to present an image of calm reassurance and confidence that all was under control. This week’s revelations of process and policy failures dent that somewhat, and the question will now be whether the media, in particular and the public by extension, will be as willing to accept uncritically that smooth talk in the future.
If “a week is a long time in politics”, nearly nine weeks until the election is an eternity. For Labour, it will be a daily grind of watching and checking everything and keeping its fingers crossed like never before, while employing its spin tactics as comprehensively as ever, but with perhaps more acknowledgement of fallibility. For National, there will be the scent of hope of more things going wrong for it make capital from, and the possibility that translates into an increase in its political support. For the voter, it is all likely to be extremely tedious, having to put up with all the new claims and counterclaims, while confronting the daily reality of still doing all we can to remain Covid19 free.
If there is a silver lining to this dark and obstinate cloud, it might just be that for whatever varying reason our collective complacency is now at an end. The hope has to be that there is a now renewed vigilance about dealing with Covid19 but making sure we get all the details of the response right this time.