Matthew Hooton: Lockdown 4 sparks Jacinda Ardern’s wrath

OPINION:

The Prime Minister is grumpy. Publicly, Jacinda Ardern’s frustration was directed at a sick KFC worker. But the worker was just the victim of bog-standard displacement anger, with the real sources of Ardern’s wrath being health officials and, to a lesser extent, the police.

Contrary to growing perceptions, Ardern’s criteria for a lockdown are clear. If the source of a new infection is known, she will rely on the track-and-trace system. But if transmission is unknown, Ardern will apply her “hard and early” doctrine.

From the information she had on Saturday night, Ardern had no choice but to move immediately to level 3, costing Aucklanders another quarter-billion dollars and around 1000 jobs.

Ardern was told there was no known link from the new Case M to the Valentine’s Day cluster, that the case hadn’t properly recorded his movements after becoming sick but had apparently swanned around town.

The Prime Minister also knew tens of thousands of Aucklanders were about to huff and puff their way Round the Bays and celebrate afterwards at Madills Farm. Given the information she had, Ardern could not possibly have allowed that event to proceed.

But the Prime Minister should have had better information. Had the health authorities identified Case M’s connection to the existing cluster on Saturday night, lockdown 4 would have been averted.

It seems another 1000 families have lost their livelihoods because health authorities weren’t able to show Case M pictures of cases A-L and ask, “Do you know any of this lot?”

Ardern was entitled to be furious to have been forced to again impose enormous economic and social costs on Auckland, this time because health authorities couldn’t make a personal connection quickly enough.

Beehive frustration intensified when the police justifiably set up roadblocks not just to stop Aucklanders fleeing to the freedoms of level 2, but inexplicably for those going the other way.

Revealed since has been a communications and perhaps operational shambles in South Auckland. The sick, the possibly sick and the general population have been given inconsistent or inaccurate information by government and health officials, using language and channels more suitable for multiply-degreed, upper-income, monocultural Wellington bureaucrats than the glorious ethnic, linguistic, educational and socio-economic diversity of South Auckland.

This is a perennial problem. Public sector communications managers apparently believe that translating government websites into multiple languages and posting screeds of impenetrable bureaucratese on Facebook will reach young KFC workers or 21-year-old gym addicts in South Auckland.

If KFC or City Fitness communicated this way, no fried chicken or gym memberships would ever be sold.

When told to communicate with South Aucklanders, Wellington PR managers like to write “engage with iwi and church leaders” on their whiteboards but it is unclear if this ever really happens. Moreover, those deemed ideologically unacceptable are excluded no matter how critical they are over whether their flock does what Wellington wants.

Brian Tamaki can get low-paid people to shower him with $50 notes, but no Wellington bureaucrat would be seen asking him to use those same skills to influence people to have a vaccine.

Similarly, white-collar Wellington-based unions are full partners of the bureaucracy, at least when Labour is in power, but more militant outfits like Unite are less welcome, despite their much more genuine links to those disconnected from middle-class communications channels.

Auckland councillor for Manukau, Fa’anana Efeso Collins — one of the last truly community-focused politicians at any level of government — wants organisations like South Seas, Vision West and the Anglican Trust for Women and Children engaged in the Covid fight.

“We’ve got to go directly into the home, speak the languages that are spoken in the families — Punjabi, Hindi, Samoan and Tongan — and make sure people really understand,” he said after it was revealed door-knocking hadn’t been part of the plan.

He wanted TikTok and Instagram added as channels alongside Facebook — which isn’t being done well either, consisting mainly of graphics announcing the fact of an announcement, with details buried deep within posts.

Such failures might explain why the police took it upon themselves to use roadblocks to tell motorists what was going on, as part of their “engage, educate, encourage, enforce” strategy. But only the first three of the 4Es have been used, with health authorities refusing to make formal complaints, and police themselves yet to issue any infringement notices.

The upshot was the Prime Minister facing unusually tough questioning on Wednesday, even by usually reliable Jacindamaniacs in the daily media.

In her frustration, Ardern went as far as any Prime Minister can in signalling that she disagrees with health officials and police on their prosecutorial stance. In this, she is probably wrong. With South Aucklanders having not received intelligible information about what to do, it would disastrously erode co-operation ifthe next step was someone being charged.

Ardern’s irritation cannot be primarily about the party-political effects of this week’s fiasco. Her private polling has the Labour-Green alliance on around 60 per cent and National-Act below 40 per cent. Her personal popularity is as high as ever. Three-quarters of New Zealanders think the country is on the right track and over half think current economic conditions are good or excellent.

The public remains wholeheartedly behind Ardern’s Covid response even though two-thirds of us don’t expect to be vaccinated until after June. A week of cock-ups won’t have any political effect.

More worrying is the impact of this week on ongoing compliance. Heather Simpson and Brian Roche’s damning report on health officials’ Covid response now seems like the entrée. It is now clear Ardern’s own macro-communications skills alone have achieved public compliance, thus covering up poor performance on the ground.

It is a lesson, not least to Ardern, that a Prime Minister performing well before the media is important, but that she also needs connected local people knocking on doors to quickly reachthose who may have been exposed, and — very soon — to encourage them to have a jab.

If she wants that to work, Ardern needs to put a bit more stick about the Wellington bureaucracy. And those health bureaucrats needs to stop communicating to people like themselves and instead take advice from the likes of Collins who represent a world that most Wellingtonians can barely comprehend.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.

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