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Claire Trevett: Covid 19 coronavirus – when will Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s patience with rule-breakers wear thin?

4 min read

OPINION

In all the leaps in scientific knowledge and understanding of Covid-19, two fundamental elements remain as true today as at the very start: the virus is “tricky”, and so is human nature.

Since those early days, the virus has got trickier and human nature has not changed.

Those two elements have resulted in one of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s nightmares: a yo-yo’ing in and out of lockdown.

Early on in handling Covid-19, Ardern had insisted a long, hard lockdown which worked was better for the country than having to yo-yo between levels.

The recent outbreaks have been dealt with by a more streamlined approach – the aim of which is to avoid lockdown.

It relies on finding the people who might be infected because they were close to someone with Covid-19, and then getting them to self-isolate and be tested. Ardern maintained yesterday that was the right approach – but said it would only succeed if all those people followed the rules.

In that regard, the young man who triggered Auckland back to level 3 is a reminder of the lessons of the early stages of the pandemic in New Zealand.

Then, thousands of people were travelling back home and asked to self-isolate. Some of them did not, and Covid-19 made the most of it.

The lesson is that not everybody follows rules. In the latest cluster, that has now happened at least twice.

In an interview with the NZ Herald to mark the one-year anniversary of the first Covid-19 case, Ardern said one of the hardest aspects of lockdown was the need to persuade young people to abide by the rules.

Young people, Ardern said, knew they would not be too badly affected by catching Covid-19 themselves.

So they had to be persuaded to completely alter their lives for the sake of protecting other people.

It was a nuanced way of saying young people can be a bit selfish – or at least oblivious to the consequences for others.

The evidence of that came early on: the Marist School cluster was one of the largest, and had a long tail as young people struggled not to socialise.

Because of that, Ardern may now be kicking herself for not being more cautious around the last outbreak which involved a school.

In the latest cluster an ever-increasing group of people have been asked to self-isolate.

It has also been admittedly rather confusing.

The simplicity of the alert level system has become more complicated. There are close contacts, close-plus contacts, casual contacts and casual-plus contacts. Some people have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many have been asked to work out for themselves which category they are in.

Different rules for isolating and testing have applied to each group.

The man who sparked the latest lockdown does not have the defence of confusion: he was tested as a contact of a student at the school – but after his test he went to the gym, despite being told to wait at home for the results.

Ardern did not bother to try to hide her anger – she could not even bear to answer the question, instead referring it to Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

There are powers to punish those who breach the self-isolation requirements. So far there has been a reluctance to use them.

In the sentence after expressing her frustration with the man, Ardern said punishing people for breaching the rules could result in people being too scared to get tested in case they were caught out.

She is relying on her own powers of persuasion rather than the long arm of the law to get people to stick to the rules.

Whether Aucklanders and businesses would agree is debatable.

The PM may also find it is not only young people she needs to worry about as lockdown frustration sets in.

The biggest risk for Ardern is that people stop blaming the “tricky” virus and start blaming the Government for not handling it well enough.

So on Sunday, after the late-night lockdown announcement, the PM reminded people of why the measures were important.

“Covid kills people.”

What is clear is that continuing to try to manage breakouts through contact-tracing, testing and self-isolation rather than lockdowns does need some form of policing of self-isolation.

The most dramatic move would be to set up MIQ for those deemed close contacts when new clusters break out.

A vaccine has been found for the virus, but not for human nature. So until the vaccine has been dispensed widely in New Zealand, Ardern remains in an arm-wrestle with human nature.

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