Wellington March 26, 2020
The enormity of the government’s task in defining the scope of the national lockdown has been highlighted by the confusion over what constitute essential services to be permitted to remain open.
After to-ing and fro-ing on whether the likes of The Warehouse could remain open, or liquor stores continue to trade or whether home deliveries of takeaway food would be permissible, the government finally offered some clarification.
Government should tidy things
But anomalies remain, and almost certainly more will come to light over the next few days as the lockdown takes hold. Unless the relevant government officials move quickly to tidy these up, as and when they occur, the whole effort risks falling apart.
That would be an outright disaster. Every one of us, from the Prime Minister downwards has to take every reasonable step we can to eliminate the Covid-19 virus from New Zealand.
While we should not be afraid to employ extreme measures during this critical time, we should equally not be afraid to modify them or abandon them completely if it becomes clear that they are not working out as intended.
The worst thing we can do in such situations is to try and make running repairs to the regulations as we go along.
Mass restrictions essential
While our experience with occurrences of this magnitude is thankfully limited, we do know that mass restrictions, invariably designed hurriedly in response to a crisis, crash not because of their well-meaning intent, but rather the devil in their detail.
Too often we make the mistake of assuming simple, broad-brush solutions can be universally and fairly applied, when clearly that is not the case.
In the end, they fail not because the policy intent behind them was wrong, but because the anomalies and exceptions overwhelm them.
They then become the major focus of public attention at the expense of the problem they were trying to resolve. Invariably, those who have no option but to comply become more and more resentful that “everyone else” seems able to get around the regulations, but not them.
Goodwill of citizens
Even under a state of emergency, and the unprecedented peacetime powers that confers, the democratically elected government still has ultimately to rely on the goodwill of the citizenry to make its plans work.
That will be forthcoming so long as everyone continues to feel their contribution to the national sacrifice is an even one and that the sanctions being imposed are reasonable.
The swift public rejection of The Warehouse’s suggestion that it should remain open as an essential public service was a good example of people sensing that one organisation was trying to push its luck too far. But it is also a salutary reminder to officials about the level of assurance and deftness they will need to show in dealing with the unexpected situations the lockdown is bound to throw up over the next little while.
Government in New Zealand, even in these difficult times, remains a partnership between the governors and the governed.
Uncertainties and job losses
The range of individual situations that will be affected here is massive, and probably not fully appreciated as yet. Struggling families worrying about their accommodation and the whether the breadwinner’s job will remain; people caring for elderly dependent relatives and those with terminal illnesses; the young mum about to give birth, or the family on the point of breaking up – all these are very real situations for many, many New Zealanders today.
They are by no means exclusive, there will be many similar examples.
The last thing any of these people can be reasonably expected to cope with alongside everything else at the moment is excessively rigorous, inflexible and intolerant administration of the lockdown which tries to fit their particular square peg into the officials’ pre-determined round holes.
Rising up to the crisis
The various natural disasters we have endured in recent years have shown us two things.
First, New Zealanders rally round each other in a crisis, and do what they can to help those who are suffering. But, second, sadly, there have also been occasions where rigid and petty-minded officialdom has got in the way of what the community was trying to achieve. We cannot allow that to derail what we all have to do as a community to stop the spread of Covid-19.
The immediate reaction to the Prime Minister’s call for us all to live within our “bubble” for at least the next little while will be one of acceptance – we fully understand we must all comply, no matter the depth of the personal disruption, to play our part. Initially, at least, there will be no tolerance shown for those shown to be or seeking to flout the rules or create mischief about them.
The role of the Police
However, that initial wave of support will start to evaporate steadily if questions of fairness and equity begin to occur and gather pace in the community.
Latest opinion poll tracking shows most New Zealanders now support the government’s actions on Covid-19, although only a minority think they will be successful. So, there is still work to be done to bring everyone completely on-side.
The apparent confusion between the Prime Minister and Police Commissioner over the extent to which you can use your private car is a silly distraction the government just does not need at the moment. In these troubled times one of our best assurances of prudence and stability must be that the elected civilian government is in control and making the decisions, not the Police or the military.
It would be a massive pity if over-zealous policing, nationally and locally, upset the public’s acceptance of the government’s comprehensive and to date responsible efforts to see New Zealand through this crisis.
Right now, a deep breath followed by a solid dose of common sense might well be in order for all those administering the lockdown. Keeping focus clearly on the bigger picture is far, far more important.
Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.