Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Incompetence is one thing, misinformation another

First, let’s look on the bright side. No one in New Zealand has died of Covid-19 since the end of May. If I were a government minister under pressure from the media, I would take every opportunity to point this out to my tormentors.

The static death toll puts into perspective the outcry over testing failures at the border. By international standards, New Zealand is still doing very well in combating the virus, despite what Donald Trump says. We need only look across the ditch to Victoria to see how much worse things might be.

As of last night, there were 90 active cases and six people in hospital, none of them critical. Most governments would be overjoyed to boast figures like that.

In fact death rates from all causes in New Zealand are lower than usual, a statistical quirk that experts attribute to the likelihood that the lockdown at the start of winter arrested the circulation of germs and viruses that might otherwise have taken the lives of susceptible people.

So things could be far worse. But after that, the positives quickly run out, and you have to wonder whether we’re in this fortunate position through sheer luck rather than good management.

The self-congratulatory buzz that accompanied the announcement that we’d gone for 100 days with no Covid-19 cases turned out to be short-lived. In the 10 days since then, we’ve been bombarded daily – in fact often several times daily – with a litany of oversights and failings. 

The big picture is one of a fiasco. Consider the following.

By common consent, the Covid-19 tracing app is a clunker. It seemed to work fine on my phone until several days ago, when it suddenly went into meltdown. After repeated attempts to re-activate it, I gave up.

The police checkpoints around Auckland are a joke, massively disrupting daily lives and economic activity for no apparent purpose. In one 24-hour period more than 50,000 vehicles were stopped but only 676 were turned back. That means people spent hours trapped in stationary cars and trucks for an almost negligible success rate against supposed rule-breakers.

Even worse, people with valid reasons for travelling – for example, trying to get to work or deliver essential goods – have reportedly been turned back or made to wait days for the required paperwork. Others, meanwhile, have been waved through. It all seems totally haphazard and arbitrary, with decisions made on the spot by officers who don’t seem to be working to any clear and consistent criteria.

Police credibility took a big hit during the previous lockdown as a result of hopelessly confused messages about what was and wasn’t permissible. Not only were some of the rules irrational and imposed in a rush of control-freakery, but they seemed to change by the day. This was compounded by the perception that police were picking the low-hanging fruit – for example, turning back solo cyclists going for a harmless ride in the country, yet ignoring Black Lives Matter protests that flagrantly defied social distancing rules and turning a blind eye to (and worse, even endorsing) illegal vigilante checkpoints manned by iwi activists.

The image of the police is unlikely to have been enhanced by the latest shambles. Didn't it occur to them to have a contingency plan in case they needed to control movement in and out of Auckland? You’d have thought it would. But if such a plan existed, it surely wouldn’t have taken several days before they had the bright idea of setting aside a dedicated lane for essential freight traffic. By any yardstick, the police performance should be marked as a fail.

Then there was the panicked decision - or at least it looked that way - to test 12,000 port workers and truck drivers within a time frame that was laughably unachievable (and perhaps just as well, since it would have caused more business chaos).  

And once again, there were mixed messages about eligibility for testing – a problem that first became apparent when the country went into lockdown in March. The official message then was “test, test, test” – yet people seeking tests, including those showing Covid-19 symptoms, were repeatedly turned away. And it's still happening.

Glaring discrepancies between what was being said at Beehive press conferences and what was actually happening “on the ground” have been a recurring feature throughout the coronavirus crisis. Many were highlighted by Newshub’s investigative reporter Michael Morrah. He revealed, for example, that nurses and health workers were said to have ample protective equipment when clearly they didn’t.  Similarly, Morrah exposed a yawning credibility gap between what the government was saying about the availability of influenza vaccine and what was being reported by frustrated doctors and nurses.

Somewhere the truth was falling down a hole, but the public trusted in the assurances given by the prime minister and Ashley Bloomfield. Many will now be thinking that trust was misplaced.

The most abject cockup of all was the failure (again exposed by Morrah, though strangely not picked up by the wider media for several days) to test workers at the border. Former Health Minister David Clark told the public weeks ago that border workers, including susceptible people such as bus drivers ferrying inbound airline passengers to isolation hotels, would be routinely tested. This seemed an obvious and fundamental precaution, but we now know it didn’t happen. Nearly two thirds of border workers – the people most likely to contract and spread the coronavirus in the community – were never tested. Some epidemiologists believe the Covid-19 virus was bubbling away undetected for weeks before the current resurgence.

On one level this can be dismissed as simple incompetence, but it goes far beyond that. People might be willing to excuse incompetence up to a point, but they are not so ready – and neither should they be – to forgive spin, deception and dissembling. Misinformation can’t be blithely excused as a clumsy misstep, still less as “dissonance” (to use Bloomfield’s creative English). On the contrary, if misinformation is deliberate then it raises critical issues of trust and transparency.

At a time of crisis, people are entitled to expect their leaders and officials to be truthful with them, especially when the public, in turn, is expected to play its part by making substantial social and economic sacrifices. If the government doesn’t uphold its side of this compact, it forfeits the right to demand that the public co-operate.  That’s the situation in which we now appear to find ourselves. The bond of trust that united the government and the public in the fight against Covid-19 has been frayed to a point where it’s at risk of breaking.

A watershed moment point came for me when I heard political commentator Richard Harman state the unthinkable on Jim Mora’s The Weekend Panel when he called on Bloomfield to resign for misleading his minister.

You could sense the shocked hush in thousands of Labour-voting households, followed by a collective cry of “Noooo!” and a blitzkrieg of anguished emails to RNZ. The pandemic has made Bloomfield a national hero. You can buy tea towels and shopping bags bearing his image. To call for his resignation was the secular equivalent of heresy.

Harman’s statement could have been dismissed as sensationalism or politicking if he were politically aligned or had a history of making provocative claims, but he’s a commentator with a reputation for being neutral and moderate.

To make matters worse, at least from the perspective of Bloomfield’s legion of admirers, Harman’s sentiments were largely echoed by Jane Clifton, another veteran political observer with no axe to grind. While eschewing witch hunts, Clifton said Bloomfield’s ministry had established a pattern of, "if not outright lying, then failing to supply correct information”. These were damning words.

All of this threw a new light on the political controversy that flared in June when Clark was pilloried in the media for supposedly “throwing Bloomfield under the bus”. Questioned about people being released early from quarantine on compassionate grounds without being tested (another extraordinary blunder), Clark said Bloomfield had accepted responsibility for the failure. Media sympathy overwhelmingly lay with Bloomfield; photos showed him standing behind his minister wearing the pained expression of someone who has been wronged but must suffer in dignified silence.

Soon after, Clark resigned in response to the general perception that he had been incompetent in his handling of the crisis. But in hindsight, people might well wonder whether it was he who was thrown under the bus; in effect, made the fall guy for failings by others, including a Ministry of Health head who was possibly considered too popular to be sacrificed.

All of which raises intriguing questions about the exercise of ministerial accountability. Harman said that if Bloomfield had misled current minister Chris Hipkins about border testing, it wasn’t Hipkins who should resign but Bloomfield. But the doctrine of ministerial accountability is usually taken as meaning that ministers must carry the can for actions taken by the departments and officials under their control – as the then Minister of Conservation, Denis Marshall, did after the Cave Creek tragedy of 1995. Marshall was in no way responsible for the erection of the unsafe viewing platform that collapsed, killing 14 people, but he did the honourable thing and resigned anyway. 

The rationale behind the principle of ministerial accountability, as I understand it, is that a minister who fears losing his seat in Cabinet is more likely to ensure his officials do their jobs properly. It’s a way of ensuring discipline and accountability down through the chain of command.

The question then arises: if the much-maligned Clark accepted responsibility for failings in dealing with the pandemic, why shouldn’t Hipkins? Could the explanation be that Hipkins is generally well liked and acknowledged as a competent minister, but Clark wasn’t? That’s the impression we’re left with. But that’s not how the doctrine of ministerial accountability is supposed to work. Denis Marshall didn’t get away with blaming those under him and neither should Hipkins, or even Jacinda Ardern.

The wider backdrop to this scandal, as pointed out earlier, is that from the very start of the Covid-19 crisis there has been a pattern of contradictory messages, but the daily tag-team act of Ardern and Bloomfield, and latterly Hipkins and Bloomfield, was remarkably effective in assuring the public that things were under control. Morrah’s reports quoting disaffected front-line health workers were met with bland denials by Bloomfield. We believed him because we wanted to, and because he seemed up-front, personable and plausible.

We’re now forced to confront the possibility that we were sometimes being fibbed to, or alternatively that Bloomfield was being fibbed to by officials further down the food chain. That realisation will give no pleasure to anyone other than the government’s political opponents, for whom it’s pure gold, and those who have resented the authoritarian overtones of the lockdown from the start. But as Harman and Clifton pointed out on Jim Mora’s show, trust in the government is never more crucial than at a time like this. Most people want to believe they are being told the truth and not fed spin. That’s the quid-pro-quo for the public compliance which the government must rely on to keep the pandemic under control.  

As I said at the outset, we shouldn’t lose sight of the positives, nor of the heroic efforts made by the countless health sector workers doing their utmost to keep the virus in check. That's the flip side to the many blunders. But public faith in our leaders has been eroded and many New Zealanders think their trust has been betrayed - all of which has left the government looking a lot more vulnerable than it seemed a couple of weeks ago.








hughvane said...

A salutary reminder that all that glitters is not gold.

GH said...

I appreciate you're trying to be balanced, and the article is excellent, but I can't get out of my head the following thought:

"As of last night, there were 90 active cases and six people in hospital, none of them critical. Most governments would be overjoyed to boast figures like that."

Until you realise the price we're paying for that. The cure is worst than the disease: 30,000 people still in the queue for surgery since the first lockdown, poverty increase that increases morbidity, increased unemployment, massive debt, reduction of the GDP on top of pre-existing economic depression, etc. How many lives will that cost?

Look! we've a new car! (but we'll starve for years to pay for it)
I'd rather say this is just part of the spin.

Odysseus said...

We were told by Ardern herself that border-facing staff were being regularly tested when in fact Cabinet had signed off on a strategy which said that regular testing was not feasible, for whatever reasons. That is not incompetence on Ardern's part, that is a lie or "misinformation" as you politely call it. Morrah's investigations were ignored for so long by much of the media because the media are heavily biased in favour of the government (a $50 million bail-out goes a long way it seems) and because they have have bought into the myth of "Our Saviour Jacinda". Responsibility AND accountability lie with Ministers. Do they never make visits to the field to ask people at the coalface "how's it going" and "do you have any concerns"? Ardern tried to spin the line this week that border and quarantine staff had been reluctant to be tested while the workers' representatives made clear they had repeatedly asked for regular testing. I suppose this is what you can expect from a government of effete academics who don't want to get their hands dirty together with a motley crew of no-hopers who would be hard pressed in the real world to get a job retrieving supermarket trollies.

MarkJ said...

Another well written balanced assessment of the situation. Thank you Karl. Yet another reason I visit every day - waiting for your next post to drop.

Karl du Fresne said...

Sorry Mark, I've been a bit slack lately.

MarkJ said...

Well worth the wait Karl - no rush. :)

Karl du Fresne said...

Postscript to the above post: I gave my phone a stern talking to this morning, as a result of which the Covid-19 tracer app appears to be working again.

Douglas Wilson said...

Not sure Sir Brian Roche would agree (but what would he know)

Brendan McNeill said...


Your article errs somewhat on the side of kindness. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

However, we are living in days where democratically elected governments globally are struggling to retain their legitimacy as voters become increasingly polarised. This is not helped when our leaders are shown to be casual with the truth. When all parties behave this way to varying degrees, the electorate eventually declares a plague upon all their houses, and ceases to trust the democratic process to deliver any meaningful change, or (in this case) public safety.

This is being played out dramatically in the USA where several cities have seen ‘mainly peaceful’ protests every night for months now; where a small minority appears to believe revolution is preferable to democracy. Think they are too small to matter? In February 1917 the Bolsheviks had only 24,000 members, by September in that year they had 200,000.

Perhaps America is not pre-revolutionary Russia in its prevailing social conditions. Just perhaps. However, when political leaders are shown to be deceitful, the crack in the foundations widens just a fraction.

Doug Longmire said...

I am a pharmacist. I work at the coalface, along with other healthcare workers.
I can assure you that PPE was in very short supply here in the Manawatu, at the very same time that Dr Bloomfield was assuring us that there was plenty.

transpress nz said...

The cure is certainly worse than the disease. President Trump said that for 99% of those who get it covid-19 is harmless: if he had said 85% he would have been right. For the other 15% it's not a pleasant experience, but the same can be said for lots of other viruses floating around out there including regular flu. Those who have actually died from covid-19 is well less than 1%, nearly all reported deaths are of people who had underlying illness and would have been equally susceptible to other respiratory system viruses.

We've had massive economic destruction, massively heightened anxiety leading to mental health problems, many cancellations of elective surgery for people who badly needed it... It would be nice if the population were being told these facts, but the present government has lots of sycophants in the mainstream media.

Andy Espersen said...

GH - I am with you on this one. Karl - you have written an excellent, balanced article – but it seems to me that not only are you barking up the wrong tree; you are in the wrong forest. Throughout your article you imply that Government’s basic lockdown policy is correct - but that you take issue only with incompetence, misinformation, spin or deception. Judith Collins is with you here, insisting that National will outbid Labour and be even harsher and more inhumane, but (of course) not make Labour’s mistakes. And New Zealand already is probably the strictest in the world!
GH – you are so right. You say, “The cure is worse than the disease”. It is now overwhelmingly obvious that in March Labour made the one fatal mistake of opting for full eradication of the virus – although it was then known that the virus was already endemic in the world. And endemic, infectious illnesses can never be eradicated, except if an effective vaccine is available and if enough people accept it – both two very big ifs.

All countries are now beginning to show the exact same statistics (just look for the true facts on the internet) : new cases of Covid are still appearing in regular numbers – but the graph that really counts is the one that shows daily deaths. This now everywhere are showing such small daily numbers that they can be safely ignored : Sweden down from about 120 a day in April to perhaps a couple a day now. That is just how we experience flus and common colds now : the virus is everywhere – we all meet up with it, and if we don’t catch it now we will later (perhaps – perhaps not!). And those of us who for various reasons are more vulnerable now (with this particular virus, almost exclusively our old population) will suffer more from an infection. In countries ravaged by the virus over the last few months all the really vulnerable people have now died - but, alas, in New Zealand that is still to happen.

And, irony of ironies - no matter what degree of lockdowns the world’s countries chose, the fatality rate is now beginning to be the same everywhere. Sweden had no enforced lockdowns at all, except closing some schools and universities and banning sports events and the likes. Their small businesses owners are now miles better off than ours - and Swedes had none of the mentally traumatic experiences so many of us suffered from being banned from visiting dying family and friends. In particular I want to mention our Maori population for whom funerals are so significant, culturally and emotionally. NZ lockdown legislation is downright evil in their case.

The Ardern government should hang its head in shame for enacting it. They brazenly claim that the legislation was fully justified because of the risk of some people coming down with a nasty sort of flu!!! Is that really sufficient justification for the amount of economic destruction, and for the untold misery, anxiety and loss of happiness lockdowns are causing to tens of thousands??

Unknown said...

Thanks Karl, The MOH and Arderns team with all their genomic testing will never reveal the actual source of the leak from quarantine. It will be political suicide to do so and make the MOH and government vulnerable to a class action challenge by parties economically damaged to the tune of $500,000,000.00 for the Auckland lockdown alone.

Hilary Taylor said...

Yes, worth the wait as others said Karl. This far down our covid-19 track I see no reason to depart from my 'big picture' belief that we have been lucky, in ways more than the obvious ones of geography, population density, compliant populace & 'late to the party' virus advent. We just had hardly any covid & we knew it could only enter over the border. Everything was in our favour and even our keystone kops handling hasn't mattered that much. The hubris filled the air after a while...yech. As far as the cult of personality for the PM/Bloomfield me why many lose perspective and go mushy. I view all governments and govt departments with a level of clear-eyed suspicion...who was it who said shake their hand by all means but count your fingers afterwards? With this PM the mush is 'next-level'& I've tuned out much of it. Morrah the exception, & you, a few others. Ardern will prevail electorally as thinking caps fell off long ago for her fans.

Hilary Taylor said...

...and I meant to say, too, that like you I was relieved to hear Harman & Clifton's panel discussion, with some proper overviews, when I was almost expecting more averted eyes, even from them. The listener backlash was risible.

Scott said...

Andy Esperson – I agree with you. I just think that the government strategy of eliminating Covid is unachievable. Covid is not disappearing from the world. Unless we become a hermit Kingdom with hermetically sealed borders, Covid is going to come back.
I notice that the new conservative party is talking about "harm minimisation" and I think that makes more sense.
We are going to have to learn to live with this, it's not the Black death, it is serious, but we cannot lockdown our country every time we have four people infected.

An analogy would be the road toll. About 350 people per year die on the roads. We could easily save 350 lives a year by ordering every vehicle off the road. But we don't do that because that would destroy our economy and our way of life.

Isn't locking down the economy because of the disease tantamount to the same thing? How many lockdowns does it take before we destroy our economy?? And what will be the death toll then?

Andy Espersen said...

Scott – No need to go overboard. Let’s keep all the trucks and cars – just decrease speed limit to walking speed, the way nature intended it. The Greens would love it.

Andy Espersen said...

A lockdown is an evil and unparalleled travesty. Because of basic justice and simple humaneness we must stop it immediately. You come home to New Zealand to see your dying father; and you are summarily locked up. When you “escape” you are jailed - so now have a criminal record.

You have proudly built up a lawful business, gainfully employing yourself and others – and Government legislates to force you to stop it, thus bankrupting you.

If you live in a retirement home Government gives you house arrest - and bans you from seeing your dearest family, potentially for the rest of your life.

It is unprecedented legislation – and counter to all hitherto accepted civil rights and decent treatment of citizens.

Jacinda Ardern and her henchmen are guilty of gross abuse of power. She blithely claims they are justified because of the risk of people catching a new type of influenza. This is faulty reasoning - and hubris par excellence.

Humankind must always humbly accept dying prematurely from infectious illnesses.