The Prime Minister and Director General of Health almost sounded surprised yesterday as they reported the lowest COVID-19 daily increase since March 25, the day before the lockdown began.
That was the good news.
At the same time, Jacinda Ardern had to defend her decision not to fire her Health Minister after he suddenly remembered that he had taken a 20 km trip to a beach on the first weekend of the lockdown.
Instead, she has demoted him to the bottom of her cabinet but coming after his earlier admission of a car trip for a mountain bike ride; it is hard to believe he has any long-term political future.
Opposition Leader Simon Bridges was also criticised for his 1000 km round trip commute between Tauranga and Wellington chair the Covid-19 Response Committee. But POLITIK was told by Speaker Trevor Mallard back in March that it was likely Bridges would chair the committee from Parliament Buildings so travel by car was the only option.
But at the same time as he was able to brush off the criticism of his marathon commute he also had to defend his leadership as some in his caucus absorbed recent polling data which showed that as many as seven list MPs and three electorate MPs could lose their seats if an election were held now.
Meanwhile National has set up a petition demanding that all new arrivals in New Zealand be quarantined for 14 days.
The Prime Minister is hinting she may agree to that.
But yesterday’s increase in cases of only 54 was welcome news.
“While I still urge caution, this does suggest that what we are doing as a nation is working,” Ardern told the daily press briefing yesterday.
“But for the moment, we do appear at this early stage to be on track.”
The almost prescient ability of both the Prime Minister and the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, to confirm trends in the daily case figures as the Prime Minister did yesterday has raised questions as to how to up to date the data Is.
ACT MP David Seymour yesterday told Health Minister David Clark that there were was widespread reports that the data simply “is not telling us what we need to know.”
“Right now what it feels like is that selective amounts of data are being released to the public on the health care website when it suits,” he said.
“Now, if we simply released the data in an open data environment, then we could have a lot more intelligence and a lot more understanding of what’s going on there.”
Clark said “the direction of travel” was to get more data online in real time.
“It certainly is everybody’s endeavour — and there isn’t a conspiracy here — to get those results turned around as quickly as we can.”
What is clear is that the Government is starting to think about coming out of Level Four.
Easter may provide a weekend over which the Prime Minister and her advisors may begin to re-orient their attention to the much more challenging task of rebuilding the country once it is out of the tight Lockdown Levels Three and Four.
A measure of how big this will be came yesterday with the New Zealand Institute of Economic research releasing their Quarterly Survey of Business Opinion which showed a net 67 per cent of businesses expected a deterioration in general economic conditions. What is frightening about the survey is that the cutoff date was March 20, six days before the lockdown began.
The Government has already spent $6.6 billion on its wage subsidy, which is now being received by 914,931 employees and 158,198 sole traders.
On Monday alone, $1.25 billion was paid out.
But in the background, while this was going on was more embarrassment from Health Minister Clark.
Knowing that he was going to confront the Covid Response Committee yesterday, he had to confess to the Prime Minister on Monday night that not only had he been riding his mountain bike in a Dunedin park during the lockdown but he had also driven 20 km to a beach with his family on the first weekend.
Ardern’s response was direct. She removed his Assiocioate-Finance role and demoted him to the bottom of the Cabinet list but kept him in Health.
“ Under normal circumstances, I would seek the minister’s resignation,” she said.
“What he did was wrong, and there are no excuses. “
But she said the fight against COVID_19 required leadership amongst the DHB base.
“ Simply put, I determined that we cannot afford a massive disruption in the health sector or to our response because David Clarke continues to possess what we require from our health minister to take on COVID-19.
“For that reason and that reason alone, Dr Clarke will maintain his role.”
She has thus left the door open to dumping him completely when the current crisis is over.
He would seem likely to join his neighbouring Dunedin MP, Clare Curran, as an ex-Cabinet Minister and very possibly an ex-MP, before the year is over.
The whole incident was such a clear own goal by the Government that Opposition Leader Simon Bridges didn’t even bother to mention it at the Select Committee.
Instead, his focus was on compulsorily quarantine for all arrivals into the country.
He was supported by the Committee’s expert advisor, Sir David Skegg, who said the goal of the COVID-19 response should be the elimination of the virus.
“Elimination does not mean that every single virus particle will be stamped out,” he said.
“The World Health Organization makes a distinction between eradication and elimination, elimination, and I quote, is the reduction to zero or to a very low defined target rate of new cases in a defined geographical area”
He said four key factors would determine elimination.
“An initial lockdown that is comprehensive; prevention of spread from returning New Zealanders; increased testing and rapid tracing of contacts,” he said.
“Now, I think they lockdown is genuinely impressive reflecting both sound planning by the Government at great speed and wonderful commitment from New Zealanders.
“Testing for the virus has also been expanded in a very satisfactory way.
“We still need epidemiological surveillance that can give a better idea of the occurrence of infection in the community.”
But he said there were two aspects that concerned him.
“The arrangements for quarantine at the border have clearly not worked in the way that was planned with the best of intentions.
“If these are not tightened urgently, the lockdown will have to be extended.”
And he said the capacity for the rapid tracing of the contacts of cases needed to be scaled up very quickly.
“Contact tracing is a big challenge, and this could be our Achilles heel.”
PThere was some encouragement on the proposal that all arriving passengers be quarantined with the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said it was under “very active consideration.”
And the Prime Minister told her press conference she was expecting final advice and recommendations on compulsory quarantine “very shortly.”
Nevertheless, National was running a petition on social media last night calling for mandatory quarantine for 14 days for all people arriving at the border.
In a way, National’s petition reflects its struggle for relevance at a time when the Government, naturally, is getting all the attention.
That is reflected in a UMR poll which has been circulating around Wellington and which has been translated into a spreadsheet showing which National MPs might lose their seats or might not make it back off the list.
The poll shows National on 35 per cent and one senior MP told POLITIK that that suggested an election result similar to 2002 when National lost 12 seats and slipped down to 21 per cent.
But a Labour advisor with considerable polling experience told POLITIK last night that the poll should be discounted because at a time of crisis the Government usually went ahead as was currently being seen in ratings for Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison and even Donald Trump.
As the Government itself is beginning to understand, the real battle will come when the two parties present their visions for recovery as the country starts to get back to normal after the lockdowns end.
But at least it now possible, albeit only dimly, to see normality ahead.
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