Week in politics: Getting out of Level 3 might not be so easy

3:40 pm on 1 May 2020

By Peter Wilson

Analysis - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is under pressure to move out of Level 3 but as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to fall it's becoming more and more difficult to keep her "team of five million" in line.

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 30: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on April 30, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Photo: Pool / Getty Images

Getting new Covid-19 cases down to single figures each day was exactly what the government wanted, but public attitudes are changing and maintaining the sort of discipline that's needed for moving to Level 2 is going to be a problem.

Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health and the government's chief adviser, has laid out the conditions. He told the daily briefing on Thursday the degree of compliance under Level 3 would be a very important factor, in particular physical distancing measures put in place by businesses.

He would need to know they were working because they would have to continue working under Level 2.

Reports of blatant disobedience have been coming in from all over the country. People are seen queuing in fast food outlets in a "business as usual" way and strolling around streets with little regard for how close they are to others.

In some cases there's doubt that measures actually have been put in place.

Workers in fast food kitchens have told RNZ about working shoulder to shoulder. Some outlets are reported to have hired more staff to cope with the takeaway binge, putting them into already crowded premises.

There has been a very noticeable change in attitudes. In the beginning, when Level 4 was imposed and an opinion poll showed nearly 90 per cent of people backed it, the number of new cases was increasing rapidly and people were scared.

Now there are just a few new cases each day and complacency seems to be seeping in. Willingness to comply is diminishing.

This week Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee was told it was "madness" to keep malls closed. Small business owners organised to give evidence by the opposition, which is running the committee, were clear about their plight and their desperate need to get back to business.

Queue for bubble tea in Newmarket store Gongcha, Auckland on day one of alert level 3, on 28 April

People queue for bubble tea in Newmarket store Gongcha, Auckland on day one of alert level 3 this week. Photo: RNZ / Kymberlee Fernandes

There's no doubt that the impact of the response has been vastly unequal. Supermarkets are booming while shops selling goods designated as non-essential, such as shoes, books, leather bags and the numerous other items are in really dire circumstances.

The political unity that was there at the beginning has evaporated. National is now gunning for Ardern at every opportunity it gets, constantly comparing the government's response to that of Australia, which has less severe restrictions.

The government says that with 400,000 more people back at work under Level 3 the economy is working at 75 per cent capacity.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges isn't talking about that and used question time in Parliament on Thursday to position himself as a champion of the small businesses still closed.

"Does she accept that every day New Zealand remains in Level 3 means more businesses failing and more jobs lost?" he asked.

Ardern: "I accept that any day that we move prematurely into a different alert level poses a risk to New Zealand's economy and a risk to New Zealanders' health."

Here's the Australian angle: "Does she agree with Prime Minister Scott Morrison who, in the last 24 hours, has stated that he sees New Zealand's approach as involving 'much more extreme economic measures' and that's why he's not going to do that?"

Ardern replied that under Level 3 there wasn't that much difference in the approaches of the two countries. "Prime Minister Morrison often has had to give those responses because people have compared the results in New Zealand and Australia, often favourably around the approach New Zealand has taken," she added.

Those were two of the 12 questions he asked her that day, all of them about the plight of small businesses.

National will become more strident and demanding as Level 3 winds down and the cabinet faces the May 11 decision on whether to move to Level 2. It will pile on the pressure, and so will many of those who fear a delay would cost them their businesses.

It's going to be another really hard call. Ardern is adamant she won't risk a resurgence of cases, which would mean having to go back to Level 4.

It's difficult to see how she or Dr Bloomfield could be satisfied with the degree of compliance. The first week of Level 3's two-week period is nearly over and it doesn't seem likely that those disobeying the rules are going to suddenly start behaving themselves.

There is a way out because it's very difficult to accurately assess the level of disobedience, and it could be deemed acceptable. Ardern, however, continues to stress the absolute need for the rules to be followed and Dr Bloomfield is even more emphatic.

There are also opinions that two weeks isn't long enough, regardless of the degree of compliance.

Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science adviser to former prime minister Sir John Key, told the Epidemic Response Committee the infection cycle was two weeks.

He made the point that people started moving around a lot more at the beginning of this week, and if the infection was being spread among them it wouldn't necessarily start showing up before Level 2 ended. He said that from a public health perspective, the ideal would be four weeks in Level 2 to make sure that wasn't happening.

Ardern has another week to go. It will test her determination to do what she believes is best to protect New Zealanders and beat the virus. And while she's doing that she will be striving to keep her "team of five million" playing to the game plan.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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