Why New Zealand’s COVID-19 response is Jacinda Ardern’s latest headache
Illustration credit: Anna Kerr

On 8 June, after 17 days of no COVID-19 cases, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern excitedly announced to the world that our “team of five million” had done what few others had achieved. New Zealand declared itself one of the only countries in the world to be virus-free. The world looked on in hope as New Zealanders went back to their normal lives, no longer forced to stay indoors. 

New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 has been praised by global news media as decisive and successful. After six weeks in the “strictest lockdown of any democratic nation”, New Zealand had almost overcome the virus, halting community transmission. Another month passed and the rules relaxed, allowing small gatherings of ten people, and the opening of restaurants. And the case numbers kept dwindling. 

Lives could get back to normal as New Zealanders slowly trickled back into workplaces, ventured out to bars and restaurants, and attended sports games. However, the dream was short-lived. After just six days of freedom, New Zealand’s worst nightmare became a reality. On 16 June, two more cases were confirmed

Two cases. Surprising, but not too worrying. The public was assured that the two cases were recent arrivals into the country and were therefore still in their mandatory 14 day quarantine. So, everything was fine, right? 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Over the next week, a series of stories revealed systemic failures in the government’s management of COVID-19 and the border, putting every New Zealander at risk once again.

The two infected women, it was revealed, were in quarantine when they received a compassionate exemption to leave on 12 June. In breach of Ministry of Health regulations, the women were allowed to leave their isolation without a negative test and drove nine hours from Auckland to Wellington to be with their family. After arriving in Wellington, the two women tested positive and panic ensued.

The rules put in place, touted by the government as the strictest border controls in the world were not enforced. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a series of alleged breaches.

The most serious breach of border regulations came a few days later on 14 June when a group of six were granted an exemption to travel to a funeral for a family member. That funeral was for a prominent gang member with hundreds in attendance. Members of the group used the funeral as an opportunity to flee from health authorities and avoid the remainder of their quarantine. One week later, an 18 year old was still on the run, risking hundreds of thousands of lives.

Now, on 25 June, New Zealand reports 12 active cases of Covid-19, a number not seen in over a month. The number is small, far lower than many other countries struggling to get ahead of the virus’ spread. But it is not just about 12 cases. These cases have revealed a breakdown of the systems put in place to quarantine people at the border and restrict the spread of cases from new arrivals. 

The Response

Disappointment arises not only out of the failure of the New Zealand government and Ministry of Health to enforce their own quarantine rules, but in the government’s response to the growing pile of stories and allegations of lenient quarantine. Since 14 June there has been announcements (almost daily) from the government announcing ‘new’ measures to ensure New Zealand’s borders are protected going forward. 

First, Ardern announced that she was bringing in the Defence Force to aid the police in enforcing quarantine and to take over from health officials. Two hours later, a spokesperson for Ardern confirmed that the Defence Force had in fact been called in weeks earlier to assist with managing isolation facilities, but the public was only now being told of this. 

Next, exemptions to leave quarantine early for compassionate reasons were cancelled. Despite this, at least two more exemptions were granted after this announcement. Finally was the announcement that COVID-19 testing was now compulsory for all new arrivals on days three and twelve of their 14 day quarantine. A rule that has been in place, according to the Ministry of Health’s website, since early May.

These announcements paint the picture of a government that allowed for little to no enforcement of the rules set in place for weeks, and in some instances months. This same government then took the opportunity to make foundational changes to the management of the New Zealand border, and used it to reiterate rules that New Zealanders thought were already in place.

Leaders in a health crisis

New Zealand’s COVID-19 response was largely fronted by two people: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashely Bloomfield. Ardern’s leadership is characterised by compassion, empathy and kindness. Paired with Bloomfield’s straightforward, easy to understand explanations of the New Zealand approach, these two were a dream team in the middle of a global health crisis. 

Illustration credit: Anna Kerr

New Zealanders subsequently were informed, understanding the necessity of a strict nationwide lockdown. Daily press conferences from either one or both of these leaders presented New Zealanders with up-to-date information, presented with a kind voice. 

In particular, Ardern’s personality and compassion shined throughout the last three months. Her easy-going nature and faith in New Zealand prevented panic and discouraged flouting of lockdown rules. Livestreams on Facebook showed her home life, as Ardern painted lockdown as a time to spend with family. All of this worked to give New Zealanders hope and faith in the health system. When the failures and many breaches were revealed, the shock and subsequent panic was larger than expected. 

Since revelations of the lack of enforcement of border controls, Ardern has made few public announcements, going so far as to reject any responsibility for the blunders. Although fronting the press almost daily when case numbers were down, Ardern has left handling of the media to her Minister of Health, David Clark. Previously, Clark had not been part of the public face of the response. After breaking lockdown rules multiple times, Clark was essentially demoted, no longer in charge of any aspect of the pandemic response. 

Now, Clark is presented as the face of the government’s response, heading press conferences and making various announcements through the Ministry of Health. An aggressive figure, Clark is prone to lashing out, notably blaming Bloomfield for the lack of enforcement at the border while painting himself as New Zealand’s saviour. 

Unfortunately for Clark, New Zealanders have not forgotten his many mishaps at the beginning of lockdown, with growing numbers calling for his resignation from the Minister of Health position. As Minister of Health, Clark is supposed to be the face of New Zealand’s response, but for months he cast himself aside and let Bloomfield manage New Zealand’s response and front the media every day of lockdown. Clark’s continued negligence in his role as Minister of Health and Ardern’s continued refusal to take decisive action against him is just another in a growing list of headaches for the Labour Party.    

Consequences of a broken health system

2020 is an important year for New Zealand politics: election year. Despite historically high approval ratings, Ardern and her government’s recent response to lenient border controls is only hurting their chances of re-election. Ardern’s team has not fully succeeded in their fundamental job of keeping New Zealanders safe from COVID-19.

These failures in the pandemic response are the perfect opportunity for opposition leaders to attack incompetency within Ardern’s government. And they are right. The Ministry of Health has neglected the protection of New Zealanders’ health in the middle of a global crisis, to the extent that the Defence Force must intervene and jobs hastily reassigned to other Ministers in Ardern’s cabinet. Ardern cannot make excuses for her government’s failures.

With New Zealand’s election only 87 days away, the campaigning is set to begin and Ardern’s historic lead over the opposition at the beginning of 2020 is shrinking every day. In the latest polls, Labour’s support was down 9%, with National, the leading opposition party, gaining all of that back. 

Although Labour still has a very comfortable lead of 12% in the polls, the longer Labour’s vulnerabilities regarding Covid-19 are left open, the greater the opportunity for the opposition to attack her weakened leadership. If this trend continues, Ardern’s re-election could be in real jeopardy, losing just five more points means Labour would not be able to govern as a majority, with the opposition likely gaining power. Despite her current lead, the race is tighter than it seems and Ardern cannot afford to lose much more support.