Opinion: First the Government lost control of the outbreak. Now, Jacinda Ardern has lost control of the comms.
The extraordinary post-Cab media conference on New Zealand’s Covid-19 future proved a frustrating and confusing watch for anyone trying to understand the Government’s true position on the state of the Delta outbreak and its strategy from this point forth.
There are no metrics by which to plot Auckland’s pathway. No explicit vaccination targets. No infection suppression targets. No dates. We have no idea when or under what circumstances the border around Auckland will be relaxed.
Certainty is a rare commodity in the Covid-19 age (and we in the media are perhaps guilty of demanding it too much), but the vagueness of Cabinet’s future decision-making might be more palatable to an increasingly-frustrated public, had several recent elements of the Government response not undermined the clarity and decisiveness that defined its early Covid-19 strategy.
Moving Auckland to Alert Level 3 was not consistent with elimination. It was a gamble that risked the gains from a month at Level 4. The Government continued to speak optimistically about stamping out the virus, even as public health experts and modellers publicly demurred.
Two weeks on, predictably, infection numbers are increasing. Despite the warm reassurances in Monday’s media conference, the period at Level 4 didn’t see nearly enough Aucklanders vaccinated to justify the shift, if indeed elimination was the strategy. The gamble didn’t pay off.
Several other elements of the response give us reason for continued concern.
Despite warnings from Māori public health experts reaching right back to the very start of the pandemic, the Government has failed to lift Māori vaccination rates to anything near those of the general population.
Just 56 per cent of eligible Māori have received at least one jab, according to data from the Ministry of Health. This is a national disgrace.
Although Government ministers publicly accept partial responsibility for the low vaccination rates amongst Māori, the same ministers sit at the Cabinet table which decided to relax restrictions.
What's more, vaccination rates have stalled for the general population. This was entirely foreseeable – most countries have experienced a similar waning. Was it hubris that led us to believe otherwise? After all, why should New Zealand achieve a 90 per cent vaccination rate when most other countries haven’t come close?
It’s possible officials were sold a dummy by the timing of the Delta outbreak, which coincided with a surge in vaccine supply. Once Delta was discovered in the community, demand for vaccinations predictably spiked.
It makes sense – if you were going to get vaccinated, what better time to do it than in a Level 4 lockdown? In most urban communities the barriers to vaccination have been very low since, but the daily number of first doses administered has been steadily trending down.
Although the government hustled to procure more vaccines from Denmark and Spain, the real problem was one of demand, not supply. Perhaps even more than those extra doses, we needed radical and creative plans to reach New Zealanders who were hesitant or indifferent about receiving the jab.
There is clearly a slab of New Zealanders disconnected from the 1pm briefings and the ‘Team of Five Million’ messaging. These are not people who are any less deserving of protection from the virus.
Why are we still waiting for widespread vaccine incentive schemes? Why don’t we have details for vaccine passports? Why do we not have explicit plans for massive door-to-door vaccination campaigns?
By offering up chocolate fish over the weekend, Hilary Barry did more to creatively incentivise vaccination than the entire Ministry of Health.
The lagging vaccine rates and the lack of plans (outside of a few buses) speak to a complacency within a Government that previously enjoyed 18 months as the toast of the world for its pandemic response.
Covid-19 presents an incredibly complex problem for world leaders, but today’s message was incoherent. The Government’s plan neither protects vulnerable communities from Covid-19, nor offers any meaningful framework for decisions in the months ahead.