Public patience wanes as fatigue intensifies

Public impatience wanes as fatigue intensifies

Peter Dunne
Wellington, February 14, 2022

At first glance, Andrew Little’s admission that he does not know when the country will move to the Orange Traffic Light System, or even what it will take to make such a move, seems utterly disingenuous. After all, he is the Minister of Health and a senior member of the Cabinet.

It would be expected he would be receiving the same briefings from the Director-General of Health, his Departmental Chief Executive, that the Prime Minister is getting.

The Podium of Truth

By way of contrast, throughout the Covid-19 crisis, the Prime Minister has projected a consistent image of confidence and certainty about the course of the pandemic and the risks it posed. Whenever she has seemed momentarily uncertain, she has quickly been bolstered by the Director-General, lest the mask of omniscience slip. The pair have never allowed themselves to be caught or derailed by the uncertainty, basking in the description by another Minister that their daily press conferences are “the podium of truth.”

Their absolute determination to always be right has led on occasion to the ridiculous extent of saying something, just for the sake of saying it. This week’s earnest Prime Ministerial observations to Parliament that Omicron “will not be the only variant” and we can expect ‘to face new and different variants this year” told us nothing new. Even worse was the comment after the protests at Parliament that vaccine mandates will be removed “when they are no longer needed!’ But a lapping media duly reported these “profundities” faithfully and uncritically as new facts, despite the fact they were hardly deep insights nor even news. Overseas commentators and experts have been saying the same for months now.

The Prime Minister’s determination to always appear in control is at increasing variance with what others close to the inner circle are doing. Dr Bloomfield, it seems, is having increasing difficulty remembering whether his Ministry disrupted or not the purchase of Rapid Antigen Test kits by New Zealand businesses, and his role in it, changing his recollection from day to day almost, leaving the Covid19 Minister struggling to know what to believe.

Public confounded and baffled 

Meanwhile, the various teams of modellers allegedly modelling the likely course of an Omicron outbreak produce different sets of figures and explanations every time they offer a prediction, leaving the public confused and uncertain as to what is likely to happen if or when Omicron takes hold. Little over a fortnight ago modellers and epidemiologists were predicting thousands of Omicron cases in the community by the last weekend, with the public health system teetering to cope. Now, when the actual figures are so far much lower, Professor Michael Plank said that the original projections were overseas figures that did not take account of the level of vaccination in New Zealand.

Be that as it may, they were still trotted out from the “podium of truth” as authoritative evidence of the immediate risk Omicron posed to New Zealand when the government’s top health advisers and the modellers knew they were at the very least not the full story as far as New Zealand was concerned, if not completely wrong altogether.

Elimination strategy eliminated

Against that backdrop of obfuscating and trivialising the situation all the time so that the government and its advisers always look to be in control, Andrew Little’s honest admission is refreshing. He deserves to be congratulated, not pilloried, for his candour which appears as a genuine recognition that we are still in challenging and constantly changing times, the likes of which we have not seen before. The one thing all the reputable international experts agree is that there is a while to go yet before Covid-19 in all its forms is either controlled or gotten rid of completely. All of which makes the singular absolutism of the New Zealand government that much harder to keep taking seriously.

However, there is no shame in admitting there are things that we do not know, or that have not worked out quite as expected or intended. Yet the government and its advisers seem to think that only they know what they are doing and that to admit otherwise is some form of failure. Given the mounting criticism that the government is shutting out people, from business leaders to the wider community, who do not accept its position uncritically, there is much to be gained from a more open and honest approach.

New Zealanders have endured a lot over the last two years – from the lockdowns and restrictions on personal freedoms to the separation from family and friends, family events without loved ones present, businesses closing and jobs lost – and are increasingly impatient for the return to more normal circumstances which the Prime Minister foreshadowed last week. It is hardly surprising though, that given the tortuous path she set out, public impatience is now giving way to public fatigue.

That is likely to intensify over the next few months, particularly once Australia re-joins the world. The tolerance for continuing trite statements and instructions from the “podium of truth” will continue to erode, no matter what the situation is. In that environment, more of Andrew Little’s blunt honesty could be just the antidote which the country needs to the platitudes and half-truths we are being fed at present.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown in the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.

 

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