Last year the Prime Minister laid out an astonishingly simple but extremely effective plan for dealing with the threat Covid19 posed to New Zealand. It was basically to take advantage of our isolated location and seal our borders to keep the virus out until such time as there was a vaccine available to minimise the risk it posed. Until then, we would need to be prepared to accept some restrictions on our daily lives, including possible national or regional lockdowns from time to time. But, in return, we would be the first in the queue when vaccines became available, so any hardships to be endured would be relatively short-term.
The deal seemed so reasonable that most New Zealanders readily bought into it and set about reorganising their lives accordingly. After all, all the indications then were that the disruption would be short-lived and that the advent of vaccines and the early access we were being promised to them would mean that it would not be too long before things were back to normal.
All the while we were buoyed along by uplifting phrases like “be kind”, live in your “bubble” and play your part in the “team of five million”. People initially adopted an almost jolly and somewhat unreal approach to what was happening, seeing it as more an exciting new adventure to embark upon, so, not surprisingly, went along with it. After all, it was but a short-term problem that would pass soon enough, or so they thought. They listened intently to the daily media conferences and elevated the Director-General of Health to sainthood alongside the Prime Minister for “saving’ the country.
A lot has changed since then. Our border control system has morphed into an extremely bureaucratic and complex managed isolation and quarantine system which is being breached frequently. Far from being at the head of the queue for a vaccine, we are now at least the 80th country to begin a vaccination programme, lagging behind previous Covid19 basket cases like Britain and even the United States in vaccinating our general public. Despite the reassuring promises before the election, we are now told vaccination is not the same priority here as in other countries because we do not have the number of Covid19 cases they do.
Massive government business support and wage subsidy programmes have shielded the economy from total collapse, although many small businesses have gone to the wall, and more look likely to do so in the coming months. Veiled government warnings suggest that the days of largesse may be coming to an end. And regional lockdowns, far from being rare and occasional, are becomingly increasingly common, with the eerie feeling abroad that there are more yet to come.
Meanwhile, the virus has mutated, and more virulent strains have appeared. It is now by no means clear that it will ever be completely eradicated. Around the world knowledge and understanding about the virus, its spread and its impacts are constantly being updated as scientists and doctors learn more.
This greater knowledge is also shaping public opinion about the virus and what happens next. If Covid19 is going to be around for a lot longer than first imagined, public response strategies will need to be adjusted frequently to remain relevant.
Already in New Zealand we are seeing that the messaging we all responded to so well last year is now being increasingly ignored. It has been dismissed by young people as too old, too long and too boring to inspire their compliance. Yet the government seems slow to recognise the changing situation, preferring instead to cling to the approach that worked so well last year.
And the previously unambiguous message is starting to look a little blurred. For example, Ministers are clearly frustrated and want people to “dob-in” those who are breaking the rules, but properly stop short of referring such instances to the Police to follow up. But that leaves the message appearing somewhat confusing, and the real point about following the rules gets lost as a consequence. Even the international media that has previously lauded New Zealand as the country to follow in terms of an effective, co-ordinated Covid19 response is now beginning to snigger at what is happening here.
None of this should come as any surprise. Many other countries are suffering similarly from what is being called Covid19 fatigue, and it would be naïve and foolish to think New Zealand should be any different. The ongoing presence of the virus is starting to irk people wondering whether their lives will ever get back to normal. What makes things more difficult in New Zealand is the irony that because of our success to date in keeping the virus from our shores increasing numbers of people feel the battle has been won, making the compliance challenge that much more difficult.
The events of the last week have shown that New Zealand’s Covid19 response strategy has reached a crossroads. Carrying on the way we are with the real possibility of more regional lockdowns, while mass public vaccination remains many months distant, will become increasingly difficult to enforce, even if the government was of a mind to. Relying on familiar reassuring faces delivering the same messages no longer has the impact it once did.
Therefore, the government urgently needs to upgrade its strategy. It needs to rebuild its early partnership with New Zealanders (keep to the rules and in return we will keep you safe). The last thing it can afford to do though is resort to a “do this or else” approach that some are advocating. New Zealanders, many of whom feel they have already been through enough, will simply not comply with that. They have to feel included once more in what is happening, not just be told what to do and to fall into line.
Therefore, the government needs to be more open about what is going on. The growing impression that it is controlling the flow and timing of information to its advantage needs to be immediately dispelled by more transparency. There also needs to be a precise public timetable for the national vaccination programme set out and a clear plan for its delivery made public. Rightly or wrongly, the current impression is that all this is being made up as we go along. It is simply not good enough given the earlier insinuations we would be all lining up for our jabs by now. The current shambles affecting the contact tracing system needs to be sorted out to ensure maximum compliance. In a word, the government has to inject a greater degree of certainty into what it is doing.
But above all, the messaging around Covid19 must become much sharper and better targeted. All we need to know is the essential information – case numbers, spread and regional implications, vaccination details – without the ritualistic press conferences, accompanying spin, endless explanation, and mawkish exhortations to be good.
How the government responds to the changing public sentiment will determine the success of our Covid19 strategy from this point onwards. More of the same will just not be enough. Dark warnings about not complying will be disastrous – if we really are a team of five million, we should be treated like one, not harangued. New Zealand has come a long way in the last twelve months. While other countries have suffered more, New Zealanders have made many sacrifices and endured hardships in the pursuit of the national good.
This is the time to reinvigorate the partnership that has already contributed so much to achieving that, not put it all at risk by blaming people when they do not follow the rules the government has decreed.