Let’s not blame the messenger


Jack Vowles thinks some in the media are overreacting in their coverage of the isolation omnishambles:

In the wake of a scattering of new cases from overseas, Stuff journalist Andrea Vance has slammed the Government for setting “allegedly unrealistic expectations” that Covid-19 would be eliminated in New Zealand. She believes the public feel they have been lied to.

Fellow Stuff journalist Tracy Watkins says the “border fiasco” has caused “incalculable damage” and “a massive breach of trust”. John Armstrong, in a column for the 1 News website, describes the situation as “calamitous”.

All are over-reacting. . . 

Social media also has plenty of posts mistakenly blaming the messengers and trying to dampen down the message too.

It must come as a shock to those who are used to a very soft approach, sometimes bordering on adulation, of Jacinda Ardern that the shine has come off her halo and her clay feet are showing.

But if the media and opposition MPs hadn’t been telling us about the omnishambles, she and her government wouldn’t have taken any action to deal with it.

The fourth estate and opposition are doing what they’re supposed to – showing us that the government has not been doing nearly as well as it should be in isolating incoming travellers to ensure Covid-19 doesn’t spread beyond those who have it when they get here.

In spite of protestations that everything is under control, there are obvious shortcomings in systems and processes:

No hold ups, oversights or obstruction. It actually takes this long – over a week – to find out how many of the 55 people granted compassionate leave weren’t tested when they should have been.

Since June 9, a negative test and at least a week in isolation were meant to be mandatory before compassionate leave from managed isolation could be granted. But that has only been the practice since June 16.

Both of those rules were bent for two Covid-infected sisters who drove from Auckland to Wellington , but who weren’t tested until after they arrived in Wellington.

The subsequent outrage was understandable, given what should have happened, the sacrifices everyone has already made, and the obvious risk of one case quickly turning into dozens.

That outrage then heightened as stories of broken protocols came forward. Mixing and mingling at isolation facilities. Testing being voluntary when it should have been compulsory. Leave for a funeral when that was meant to be banned . Even runaways .

The case of the two sisters begged the obvious question: How many others have been let out early without a test? Each of them could pose a risk of a second wave.

That question has been asked everyday – by journalists, the Opposition, even Ministers’ offices – since June 16, when the sisters’ positive results were revealed.

The answer isn’t just about giving us a better sense of the health risk. It’s also about the depth of failure that has occurred at the border, which feeds into the level of confidence in the ministry, health chief Ashley Bloomfield, the Government and the Prime Minister.

Those border measures are critical. With no signs of community transmission, the greatest Covid danger to New Zealand are the thousands of people returning home from overseas.

You’d think it would be essential to collect their information and put it all into a single database or an integrated system – contact details, symptoms, daily health check results, test results, if any.

That hasn’t happened.

Bloomfield was clear today that there hasn’t been a cock-up. It has taken so long because health officials have had to match names and dates of birth from their systems with information at isolation facilities.

Does this mean there was no proper record of who was in isolation, who was tested and when?

There was another simple way to find out that appears to have been overlooked.

All of the 55 people granted compassionate leave have been tracked down and referred for testing. Yet Bloomfield had no answer when questioned why they hadn’t been asked, when contacted: “Were you tested before you left managed isolation?”

This isn’t the first information failure for the ministry. They don’t know how many healthcare workers were infected in the workplace . Their regional public health units all used different IT systems . . . 

News of the omnishambles has led in a spike of people seeking tests for Covid-19 which isn’t surprising.

People who’ve lost trust in the government to contain Covid-19 at the border are taking responsibility for themselves. Although there is no evidence of community spread that appears to be due to good luck rather than good management, and anyone with possible symptoms will want to make sure a cold is only a cold.

It’s better to be tested as a precaution than to harbour the virus in the belief that it is no longer here and we have the media and opposition MPs to thank for giving us the information to make that call.

Contrary to what the critics are saying, they’re not overreacting, they’re simply holding the government and the ministry to account.

Media blamed for low voter turnout


Political scientist Professor Jack Vowles has laid the blame for the low voter turnout at last year’s election at the media’s door:

“One problem is [the] mass perception that elections are not close and that the outcome is totally determined.

“I think that it’s a problem under MMP that people continue to estimate the closeness of an election by the poll difference between the two leading parties, whereas that is not necessary a clear predictor of what is going to happen.

“It may well be that a coalition of parties may be able to form a government even though the gap between the two major parties is not a close one at all.”

Most reporting of polls focuses on the popularity of the National and Labour leaders and highlights the gap between these two parties. It rarely focuses on the right and left groupings and possible coalition permutations. *

Professor Vowles said the format of televised leader’s debates had made the problem worse.

“The precedent of reintroducing television debates between the two major party leaders alone, without the participation of minor party leaders, is one of the things that tends to keep people thinking in terms of this difference of the two major parties.

“I think this is something that I would recommend does not happen in future because I think people will get a much better idea of the uncertainty of the election if the multi-party nature of it is more clearly put in front of them in a very high-profile television event.”

A debate with all the parties is a recipe for a lot more heat than light.

It’s difficult enough to get much worthwhile when it’s just two leaders and the chair, adding the leaders of the wee parties would allow even less time for proper discussion.

Professor Vowles said the similarity between the policies of the major parties had also alienated voters.

“Parties actually developing more coherent and distinctive policies is one way of generating interest in politics, but of course there is also an incentive by political parties to coverage on the median voter and so it is difficult always to do that.”

MMP forces the two main parties to court the centre voters which has a moderating impact on policies.

That said there are still stark differences between National and Labour and both parties offered voters distinct choices last year.

Professor Vowles’ comments were made to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee’s Inquiry into the 2011 General Election. His submission is here.

* The NBR is an exception to this – its report on Sunday’s TV1 poll is headlined: First post-budget poll has Labour-Green block neck-and-neck with National.

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