Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: We don’t expect perfection, Prime Minister, but drop the defensiveness

OPINION:

This time round, the lockdown doesn’t only feel harder for all of us – it also clearly feels harder for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

The handling of the Delta outbreak has come in for a lot more scrutiny and criticism than in the past. Judging from the very extended set-piece speech Ardern delivered today, that is starting to take its toll.

The introductory speech beamed out live to the nation was not about what was happening with the current Delta outbreak, it was a political broadcast.

It was an attempt by Ardern to defend what the Government had done in the past and justify things it might not have done.

It was the first time Ardern had done the press conference since Monday, when she announced the extension to the level 4 lockdowns.

Ardern left the public appearances to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson for a couple of days.

In the interim, she was clearly stewing on questions about the vaccines rollout, whether the Government had prepared for an outbreak of Delta, and the future of the elimination strategy.

Her delivery showed a Prime Minister on the defensive.

Her speech missed the point of some of the questions that are actually now being asked.

She mounted a lengthy defence of the elimination strategy and the benefits it had delivered to New Zealand over the past 18 months.

Nobody – or at least nobody sensible – has argued the opposite. The questions being asked now relate to the next few months, not the past.

There has been little to no disagreement with the elimination strategy up until now.

Nor has anybody sensible seriously questioned whether that should be abandoned before a higher proportion of us are vaccinated. It is why people are abiding by the lockdowns.

But there are now increasing questions about whether the elimination strategy is still realistic with Delta. That strategy is still our only defence until most of us are vaccinated.

There are legitimate concerns about what happens in the next few months if the elimination strategy does not hold.

That is a prospect PM has not yet publicly entertained – so we don’t know what the plan might be, or whether there is one, beyond never-ending lockdowns.

However, Ardern was right to defend herself when it came to the issue of a planned exit from the elimination strategy.

Some have inaccurately depicted her as wedded to the elimination strategy and hellbent on staying Covid-free until the end of time.

That was never her position: her position was and is to start opening up again once a lot of New Zealanders are vaccinated.

The reason there is confusion about that position is that she has not yet set out the two critical measures of when that might happen: firstly, what rates of Covid-19 she would be able to stomach in a well-vaccinated population. Second, what that vaccination rate might be.

The other fronts on which Ardern has come under fire are in the preparedness to deal with a Delta outbreak, and the pace of the vaccines rollout. Ardern has been completely unwilling to accept any suggestion of shortcomings on these.

Most can see perfectly well if we had gone hard and early on the vaccines rollout we might not be in such a precarious position now, potentially facing months of restrictions while the rollout catches up.

It is only in recent weeks it has stepped up to a decent pace.

That is welcome, but it is also galling for ministers to start the daily updates with the announcement of “good news!” and the tally of vaccinations the day before. It is good news. But it would have been much better news delivered months ago.

When it comes to the political handling of Covid-19, Ardern has an unfortunate tendency to go on the defensive very quickly about perceived criticisms, rather than simply being upfront and fulsome in answering questions being asked.

She is also reluctant about admitting when things have not gone as well as they might have, or admitting anything has been done less than perfectly. Traditionally, it is political folly to admit to mistakes or weaknesses.

Nobody expects perfection with Covid-19, Prime Minister.

But being brought into the plan, rather than political defences and attempts to pretend obvious problems do not exist, would be nice.

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