Week in politics: Confusion and frustration over Covid-19 messaging

6:16 pm on 5 March 2021

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - The week began with the prime minister saying lockdown rule-breakers were facing "the full judgment of the entire nation" and ended with uncertainty about whether they were clearly told the rules in the first place.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attended a separate conference with Chris Hipkins after David Clark announced he was stepping down as minister of health.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins say communications to Case L's family were clear. (File image) Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

At her widely reported post-cabinet press conference on Monday, Jacinda Ardern said some recent Covid-19 cases had committed "intolerable breaches" and let down the team of five million.

Her unusually strong comments followed the discovery that there had been a previously unknown contact between two mothers. The first was from a family that was meant to be isolating, and they went for a walk together.

The second was the mother of the young man who later tested positive but whose infection could not initially be linked to the Valentine's Day cluster, because there had been no known contact with anyone from that cluster. The mother tested positive on the same day.

The next day Stuff's Thomas Manch reported it like this: "It now appears Ardern and her cabinet locked down Auckland at the discovery of a community case without a clear connection to the existing cluster - only to discover it was a previously undisclosed contact with a known Covid-19 case."

That would explain Ardern's frustration, although for the rest of the week the government maintained that putting Auckland into alert level 3 had been the right decision for a variety of reasons.

Thousands of people had to be tested because they had been at places where known cases had visited, and all the students of Papatoetoe High School had to be re-tested.

Then there was Case L, the young woman who went to work at KFC in Botany Downs while she had Covid-19 but before she had tested positive. She was the sibling of a school student who had tested positive.

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KFC in Botany Downs Photo: Google Maps

Ardern said she should have isolated but Case L disputed that and said her family wasn't told to. Case L told Newshub she and her family had been unfairly harassed and ridiculed online and she wanted an apology. "We are being called stupid, saying that our family needs to be prosecuted and put in jail," she said.

No apology was forthcoming. Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the family had been told what to do and revealed the number of messages sent to it.

There was further confusion when Newshub reported there had been "multiple posts" about Case L on the official Unite Against Covid-19 website, which is run by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,

"The posts were responding to questions from the public and stated the KFC worker, known as Case L, didn't need to isolate and her and her family 'complied with advice they were given at the time'," the report said.

A DPMC spokesperson told Newshub the information came from the Ministry of Health.

The Herald's Claire Trevett investigated. "Both sides can point to some evidence they are in the right," she reported. "Case L had said she was never told she had to isolate and, in fact, one message had specifically said she did not, only her sibling needed to."

Security ramps up ahead of Covid-19 testing at Papatoetoe High School on 23 February.

Papatoetoe High School ramping up for Covid-19 testing. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Trevett said the prime minister fought back by releasing the number of times health authorities tried to contact the family to get the girl tested, and the letters that were sent to the families at the school.

"The trouble is that the evidence has only shown just how confusing were the messages being sent out," Trevett said, and she gave details of those messages.

Trevett noted Hipkins had said that regardless of official advice, common sense should have told Case L to stay at home. "That may be true, but relying on common sense to prevail over confusing advice is a tough ask."

Because cases are not named and are referred to by using letters, the cluster situation is itself confusing. RNZ's website item Covid-19 February Cluster: Case Profiles has been published to help people "navigate the alphabet soup" and explains it all.

The good news for the government was that there were no new community cases this week, and Cabinet has decided Auckland will move to alert level 2 and the rest of New Zealand to level 1 at 6am on Sunday. That seemed almost a certainty.

Parliament was in recess this week so opposition parties didn't get the chance to harass the prime minister over the messaging controversy. They could still chase her on Tuesday when it resumes.

A Covid-19 police checkpoint at Mercer on Monday 15 February

A Covid-19 police checkpoint at Mercer during alert level 3 in Auckland. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

While the lockdown and the rule-breakers dominated political news this week, the housing crisis was lurking in the background.

Stuff reported the average price of a house in Wellington had passed the $1 million mark. It stood at $1,012,163, according to property data provider CoreLogic. In the city's western suburbs that rose to $1,160,087.

The rest of the region wasn't far behind.

Stark evidence of the plight of first home buyers in the capital was revealed by 32-year-old Sophie Cherry in an interview with Stuff.

She finally had an offer she made on her first home accepted but said it wasn't something to celebrate.

"An entire generation is getting priced out and it's going to create inter-generational inequality," she said.

"First home buyers won't exist because people with houses are just selling to other people with houses."

Cherry said she originally looked at places in the $650,000 to $680,000 range but within six months those prices could not be seen in Wellington.

At the last minute, she had to borrow more to get across the line and was now stuck with "astronomical levels of debt".

Wellington Rain; Housing;

The average price of a house in Wellington has passed the $1 million mark, according to CoreLogic. (File image) Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

New Zealand Institute of Economic Research principal economist Christina Leung said first home buyers couldn't save money fast enough.

"The goal posts for that 20 percent deposit keep shifting as house prices rise," she said. "The rate at which their cash savings can grow don't keep up with the rate of house price inflation.

At the end of its report, Stuff quoted Finance Minister Grant Robertson speaking at a national economics forum hosted by Waikato University.

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Finance Minister Grant Robertson Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He said the housing crisis was a long-term challenge and one that would occupy the thinking of the current government and governments to come.

"All the economists from the retail banks, from the government institutions, were predicting a drop in house prices, quite significant drops in house prices, through 2020 [and] the opposite occurred," he said.

"We're now in the process of working through our response to that, but it's quite clear that [the] housing challenge remains massive for us."

There wasn't anything in those remarks to give first home buyers much hope. Robertson has said his May budget will contain a suite of measures designed to alleviate the housing crisis.

In this column last week, it was reported that opposition MPs were investigating the issue of a visa to the partner of Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March, suspecting special treatment. Since then Immigration NZ has told RNZ: "The application was processed in the normal manner via an authorised decision maker and was approved as it met immigration instructions."

*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.