The Government’s release of its Covid-19 survey on Friday offers a remarkable insight into how much market research impacts policy formation.
It is widely known in Wellington that the Ardern government has long made an intensive use of focus groups.
But that research is usually kept tight and only occasionally alluded to in background briefings.
However, on Friday, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet published details of an intensive survey into attitudes to the management of Covid-19.
That it came from the politically independent Department did not disguise the fact that the survey read like a political operations manual.
Meanwhile, in an indication of how political the Covid response is becoming, one of the two rival companies promoting saliva testing is believed to have hired a lobbying firm with close connections to Labour and the Prime Minister.
Asia Pacific Health Group, which is half-owned by the New Zealand Super Fund, was awarded a Ministry of Health Contract in May to provide up to 20,000 saliva tests a week for border workers.
But its rival, Rako Science, is aggrieved its test has been unable to be used in Covid isolation and quarantine facilities.
It has accused the Ministry of Health of using its own “‘expert advisers’ who went out of their way to cast doubt on Rako’s science”.
“We were not given the chance to challenge their multiple major errors or to support them to get their own work and advice right,” Rako Science director Leon Grice said.
“The ministry has consistently advised Chris Hipkins incorrectly – that saliva is a less sensitive sample for detecting Sars-CoV-2 as compared to nasopharyngeal swab tests.”
But Victoria University Associate Professor Janet Pitman from the University’s School of Biological Sciences led a study which reported a week ago that used real-world samples to confirm the 98.7 per cent accuracy of Rako’s saliva test for COVID-19.
“This is the first, and currently the only, COVID-19 saliva test to be diagnostically validated in Aotearoa, New Zealand,” she said.
“Despite a view that saliva tests aren’t as accurate as the standard nasopharyngeal test, our research shows this one is,” she says.
“A paper describing the study has been prepared and submitted for publication in a medical journal.”
The contracted testing started for a small group of border workers in Christchurch a fortnight ago — over a month after the contract was signed.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health said “tests had been completed” as part of that trial but refused to say how many.
There is big money at stake in testing.
The Rako test, which was developed by the University of Illinois, sells for around $NZ40 a test in the US.
With the Ministry of health contract calling for up to 20,000 tests a week, that would mean the providers stood to earn as much as $800,000 a week.
It is little wonder then that both have strong political connections.
Rako Science director, Leon Grice, is a former New Zealand Consul in Los Angeles and is the current chair of the NZ-US Council. Grice was appointed director of the New Zealand 2011 office by then National Minister Murray McCully. That office was tasked with maximising New Zealand involvement in the Rugby World Cup at the same time as it showcased New Zealand to visitors.
McCully then appointed him to the Los Angeles post.
APHG is believed to have retained Thompson-Lewis, an Auckland political lobbying firm presided over by GJ Thompson, a former Chief of Staff to Jacinda Ardern and David Lewis, a former Chief Press secretary to Labour Prime Minister, Helen Clark.
Politics is never far below the surface in the Covid response
The DPMC’s research, conducted by the Auckland brand research company, TRA, of 976 Aucklanders, showed that there was a sense of COVID-19 fatigue in the country.
So the researchers set out to understand how to keep New Zealanders “engaged with the collective mission -Unite Against COVID-19.”
The overwhelming mood was neutrality when people were asked what their sentiment was towards Covid in New Zealand.
“The high ranking of neutrality indicates people are not strongly feeling anything –passivity can be hard to motivate as people are in quite a neutral state and don’t necessarily see a problem,” the report said.
Nevertheless, 75 per cent said the Government was handling the situation well, that the country was headed in the right direction.
But 53 per cent said they were worried about opening up the broader beyond travellers from Australia and the Cook Islands.
And a finding that may explain the Government’s reluctance to admit more foreign workers showed that 45 per cent were worried about non-resident workers coming in.
But the key to the Government’s success with Covid was the “team of five million” attitude taken by most respondents.
Eighty-eight per cent said they were very willing not to attend mass events if required; 87 per cent were happy to restrict travel within New Zealand; 86 per cent to not visit hospitality or retail outlets, and 79 per cent were very willing o wear a mask on public transport.
Fifty-six per cent said it was the “right thing” to follow the rules; 48 per cent said they would comply because they didn’t want another lockdown.
The study found that Maori, despite feeling positive about their own lives, and that NZ was handling COVID-19 well, were more likely to feel fear towards the COVID-19 situation.
“This stems from a worry that COVID-19 can impact their goals, particularly financial betterment,” the report said.
Pasifika had lower levels of compliance “ either because they just won’t comply, or they aren’t aware of the rules.”
And Indians were “more motivated for the borders to re-open further, unlike the rest of the population.
“The job to do here is more about proactively managing expectations so that this group does not become disengaged,” it said.
However under-35 males were less compliant in comparison to the total population.
“We need to make communications and messaging feel more relevant to this group to increase their engagement and overall compliance,” it said.
It is clear from the research that has been released that the Government understands that its political survival depends on maintaining the confidence and support of the population in managing Covid.
It is impossible to disentangle the politics from the pandemic.