There was a measure yesterday of just how frustrated the Government must be over Covid rule breakers.
The Prime Minister began her press conference yesterday by reminding people that Covid was a killer.
Reading, as she always does at the start of her media conferences, from notes she said: “We have thankfully been without loss of life via covid-19 for some time, but that is still the primary reason we take these strict, short and sharp measures.”
“Covid kills people.
“We must never lose sight of the reason we take these measures.
“It is to save our people’s lives and to save their livelihoods.”
That broke with 12 months of Covid messaging.
It was in sharp contrast to her Saturday night press conference, where she pleaded for tolerance for rule-breakers.
Even so, she obviously did not accept that what happened in Papatoetoe was a consequence of the Government’s messaging strategy.
She said she was confident the Government had communicated the health message to the Papatotoe High School community clearly.
“Obviously, in this case, despite that communication over what was expected, that has not occurred here,” she said.
“I don’t want to create an environment where an individual who has made mistakes here gets so pilloried that no one wants to be tested.
“That’s not a healthy environment for anyone.”
Right from the beginning of the Covid crisis last year, the Government has resisted using talk of death or threats in its covid messaging.
Proposals were discussed in March and April last year with the Topham Guerin company, Matthew Hooton and the NZ Police, which would have seen death used as a stick to beat people into compliance with the lockdown restrictions.
They were rejected.
The Head of Communications at the Government’s All of Government Committee, John Walsh, told The Guardian last week that instead, the communications strategy was focused on getting people to do the right thing.
“What was really important was the style, tone, and manner,” he said.
“We worked hard on empathy.
“We tried very hard not to tell people off and to be supportive.”
And that was the way Ardern pitched the message in her Saturday night press conference.
“A contributing factor to the issue we are now facing is that the guidelines and indeed the rules have not always been followed,” she said.
“People who should have been in isolation weren’t.
“That has created multiple high-risk situations.
“I say that not to place blame.
“Our system has always had multiple layers to it because we know humans make mistakes.
“We also know, though, that we will not succeed if we turn on one another or if we seek to place shame on people.”
But on social media following that media conference, there was plenty of blame being attached to the Papatoetoe household, who had failed to self isolate.
Even Colin Tukuitonga, the distinguished medical academic, former WHO official and former CEO of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs, published a tweet seemingly critical of the family at the centre of the outbreak.
He responded to a tweet from “Emmaline” which said: “Not the Gym after the Covid Test **** my G those gainzzz can wait; it’s like the most basic instruction SELF ISOLATE AND WAIT TIL U GET A NEGATIVE RESULT TXT**** ****”
Tukuitonga tweeted in reply: “Incredible”.
But yesterday, Ardern dropped the nicely-nicely approach and broke with a year’s communication convention.
“We have thankfully been without loss of life via covid-19 for some time, but that is still the primary reason we take these strict, short and sharp measures; Covid kills people,” she told a media conference.
However, she was warning against people seeking to lay blame on others. But she prefaced her remarks by acknowledging the frustration in Auckland.
“I want to acknowledge the frustration I’ve seen, and I’ve heard overnight, particularly coming rightly so from many Aucklanders,” she said.
“No one wants Covid in our community, but equally, we won’t beat it by turning on each other.
“We know what works to stop covid staying at home and getting tested, and we need to do that again.”
But by toughening up her rhetoric about Coivd, the Prime Minister, implicitly acknowledged that some of the “team of five million” messaging had not got through to some audiences.
Auckland City Councillor Efeso Collins told TVOne’s “Q+A” yesterday that it was not working in South Auckland.
“People are doing as much as they can to be responsible,” he said.
“But if we’re not going to do this and be compliant out of kindness, then maybe it’s time to go-to necessity.”
Collins said there were many people in South Auckland who did not believe in vaccinations.
“I think the messages that are coming out of Wellington are good,” he said.
“We all understand it.
“But you look at this particular case; it wasn’t until last week that there was door-knocking going on.
“We’ve got to get people connecting with a people that can speak languages like Samoan, Tongan or Hindi; those are the languages in Papatoetoe that are the main languages.
“And I think the Ministry of Health, whilst they’ve done really good work, they can provide us with the health advice, but when it comes to community engagement, I don’t believe that we’ve engaged enough with local organisations who have the reach and the touch so that they’re able to get into our families.
“And I think that’s where there’s been the mismatch.”
Ardern said the Government was always looking for more and better ways to communicate.
“Particularly with hard to reach communities where there may be language barriers,” she said.
“But we try to leave as little excuse as possible for not hearing the message that we are on alert level three in Auckland.”
But the Government is clearly embarrassed that the message did not get through in Papatoetoe whilst at the same time it faces a potential backlash from Aucklanders fed up with lockdowns.
And it may yet jeopardise the possibility that New Zealand could open its border, possibly as soon as July, to flights from Australia.
That’s why its messaging and communications strategy is so important.