Thursday, May 14, 2020

Henry Armstrong: Covid 19 – a Masterclass in Obfuscation?

The New Zealand government’s response to the COVID19 pandemic is being hailed around the world as “a masterclass in communication”. Much of this adulation is being heaped upon our Prime Minister, who, we keep being reminded by our sychophantic media, actually holds a university degree in communication. 

How justified are these accolades, now that COVID19 appears to be under control?

Well, let’s start with the positives. New Zealand has been incredibly fortunate in that the virus appears to be under control, and full marks to our government for doing exactly what our constitution requires it to do, which is to protect the citizens of New Zealand-no more, no less. It matters not which political party or personality happens to be in government at the time, the responsibilities do not change. We will all rejoice in a reduction of strict “guidelines” or are they “rules” or perhaps” legal requirements”, the breach of which attract legal consequences?

Therein lies the problem.

Today, as we progress to alert Level 2, new “guidelines” are being promulgated to ensure we capitalise on the medical gains we have apparently made under Alert levels 4 and 3.And a new law is to be passed to clarify the powers surrounding numbers in gatherings and physical distancing in Alert levels 2 and 1. This suggests that the laws under which Alert levels 4 and 3 were conducted were not sufficiently robust enough to ensure enforceability at the time.

But there is much confusion around exactly what we the public were and are to do under these alert levels.

If I were to ask a random sample of Kiwis to identify the regional boundaries of their region (or rohe), could they explicitly identify that patch of Highway 1 where the Manawatu region, for example becomes Horowhenua, which then becomes Kapiti, which then becomes Greater Wellington for example?  Are the road signs “Welcome to the Horowhenua district” the actual boundaries? I would expect so but would others? Yet, under the COVID19 restrictions, we were not to exceed our regional boundaries if travelling. Indeed, we were instructed to only travel “locally”. What does” locally” mean to a person residing in, say, Taihape or Ashburton? How far could they travel without breaching the “guidelines” or “rules” or “restrictions” or whatever? Two  kms? Five kms? As far as the regional boundary-wherever that might be?

Then of course we have a huge array of descriptors relating to the lockdown itself. Most Kiwis understood the seriousness of the situation confronting the country and it is a great credit to their willingness to act accordingly. But how clear were the government criteria?
Were the criteria: Suggestions? Guidelines only? Expectations? Directives? Legal  requirements under a piece of legislation, the breach of which would be prosecution?
Or perhaps, impassioned daily exhortations by our Prime Minister?  “Rules”? To what degree should we comply with “rules” if they are only  “guidelines’ or “suggestions”?

A simple continuum of clarity illustrates how utterly confusing the restrictions have been during the COVID19 crisis where 1 is unclear and 5 is very clear indeed:

“ you should”
required under law
guidelines only
rules to be followed
restrictions  enforced

The New Zealand public responded magnificently to this crisis realising how serious the situation was and might become and to it’s credit, the government did display  it’s concern by taking appropriate action. Let us all be grateful for that. But then, our constitution requires them to do just that.

However, if such a crisis re-occurs, there are some clear improvements which need to be made, to firstly clarify the” requirements”, call them what you will, and their enforcement, otherwise we will again get confusing and woolly messages.

1. Legislation. Have in place effective legislation rather than making it on the hoof, or too late, as we are seeing at present, with new laws relating to the size of allowable gatherings and social distancing.

2. Clarity. Ensure the public know and understand more fully, which Acts are being implemented and our legal obligations which follow and why. For example, the authorities used in the current crisis are the Health Act and the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act. Some further clarity around the provisions of these Acts and who can initiate them, would perhaps have precluded members of the public from breaching them. It appears that the Director-General of Health and Civil Defence Commissioner initiate these “rules” but local authorities also have a role too, apparently-which was manifestly  unclear in the COVID19 crisis.

3. Promulgate widely and in advance, any authority or power assigned to any agency assisting the police, particularly in regard to restrictions on travel, such as the NZ Defence Force or Maori Wardens.            

The question of travel on essential business was  also very unclear for many. Why was it acceptable for iwi roadblocks to be established to apprehend and question members of the public, when this function, if it was indeed necessary, should have been carried out by the police or the NZ Defence Force?  If members of the public had been clearly advised that it was illegal to travel on certain public roads, beyond a defined boundary clearly identified by a police checkpoint, I will guarantee any potential “breaches” would have been zero. (And political opportunists would have been denied their place in the sun.)

4. Changes to restriction. In the current crisis, there have been several instances where information or instructions from government have been confusing or contradictory. For example, early returning to school under Level 3. Another instance was the establishment of the aforementioned checkpoints or roadblocks on public highways.

The NZ police adopted a discretionary approach to what were clearly illegal actions. How was the public to either know of or react if stopped at these ckeckpoints with no clear police presence and no obvious assigned authority?

Then there was substantial confusion around obtaining medical assistance, including the availability of the flu vaccine, elective surgery, and COVID19 testing, the latter being withheld from some members of clusters and in some hospitals and rest homes, yet freely available on the street. This was MOST confusing.

And finally, the ability of businesses to operate under Alert levels 4 and 3. In this case, most businesses had to resort to enquiring from MBIE, when there should have been clear statements much earlier. At least, this aspect improved each day with more and more businesses being told they could open online in level 3.

In short, clear and concise statements need to be issued as restrictions are eased and  the government needed  to handle this much better than it did.

5. Withholding of important information. The government’s dump of a huge amount of information on Friday 8th May reveals that it was withholding a substantial amount of important information from the public, the media and the Emergency Response Committee throughout Alert Levels 4 and 3. The fact that it was dumped on a Friday afternoon at a time it could not be assessed by news media for the 6pm news, and over a weekend when fewer journalists would be on duty, smacks of political disingenuity and political manouvering  at a time when the government is blasting anyone who tries to “politicise” the crisis. How utterly cynical and hypocritical.

6. Gagging of Ministers. This would have to be, along with the illegal iwi roadblocks, the most damaging and cynical aspect of a government claiming transparency and empathy with  the public, yet conniving in secret to ensure their mistakes do not incur a political cost.
A true leader exhibiting outstanding communication skills would have been brave enough to state that ”yes, we did not get everything right but we have learned many lessons in the process. But we did our best in the circumstances”.  We could have accepted that. Instead we see bumbling, secrecy and a clampdown on politicians being allowed to comment except in writing and only then with the written permission of the Prime Minister who, remember, is “an outstanding communicator and leader”

Next time, with substantial administrative improvement and a whole lot more political honesty (surely an oxymoron if ever there was one!), there may be some justification in claiming the government’s responses and directives as a  “masterclass of communication” – but definitely not this time.

Henry Armstrong is retired, follows politics, and writes.

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