Justifiable exaggeration, obfuscation and omission?: Lockdown meant closing businesses, cloistering people in their own homes, and calling off weddings and funerals. Yet we went along with it. The Weekend Herald looks at how Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's words proved just as important as science in NZ's response to Covid-19.
There is a large whiteboard in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's office, almost completely covered with tiny numbers in rows.
It was visible in the background for a Zoom interview by the Herald with the PM until a staff member moved it aside.
It tracked the daily updates of cases of Covid-19.
For the first couple of weeks, those rows included the potential trajectory of case numbers from modelling, mapping what was happening against that modelling.
That line ceased on March 25 – the day New Zealand went into lockdown with 102 cases.
It is a visual reminder to Ardern of what could have been – and what is: New Zealand on the precipice of elimination, 19 deaths instead of the "thousands" some modelling had suggested, and new cases in single figures.
Ardern has often credited science and data for the decisions that led her to that point.
But Ardern's words were just as critical.
This week, epidemiologist Des Gorman said public health measures over the ages and in other countries had failed because of human nature.
"Public health measures have failed all around the world because they keep assuming that humans behave consistently rationally.
"People don't make rational decisions."
Ardern needed to tame human nature for the lockdown to work.
Google data showed the movement of people has showed New Zealand's lockdown was the most effective of any country bar Italy (and likely Wuhan, China).
Ardern's communication style has been praised internationally, including by the World Health Organisation.
Just how did Ardern manage to persuade New Zealanders into docility?
Asked this question herself on the last day of the level 4 lockdown, Ardern said she was confident New Zealanders would do what was needed if they knew there was a good reason for it.
"The thing that has probably given me confidence in our response has been the proof from New Zealanders today that as long as people see the need, people know why you're making that decision, that you're sharing all of the information, and people are coming on that journey with you then they will do extraordinary things.
"It's just been about trust.
"Human behaviour changes as long as people trust they have all the information they need to support the decision you are making on their behalf."
WHERE THE WORDS COME FROM: HOW THE PM OPERATED
Ardern is a proficient mimic of former PM Helen Clark, so perhaps it should not have been a surprise when Ardern started to adopt Clark's mannerisms as her own.
The first Clark attribute she mastered was the death stare: that came early on in Ardern's reign.
During the Covid-19 press conferences, she has also used the Clark nod – that firm nod to punctuate a point. Then came the Clark grunt – Ardern began grunting in agreement as director general of health Ashley Bloomfield was speaking.
Ardern laughs about this when it is put to her.
"I often don't do stand-ups with someone next to me, so how do I give affirmation? I don't want to give snaps, sit there clicking my fingers while somebody is speaking. Thank you for noticing."
Clark was also renowned for her sense of control.
That is another attribute Ardern shares – she has occasionally made a self-deprecating reference to it herself.
Ardern was by far the dominant voice – almost the only voice – during the pandemic.
While Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Education Minister Chris Hipkins occasionally appeared to talk about specific issues, Ardern was the controller.
She could not afford to have mixed messages emerging, so she made sure she was the only one delivering the message.
Those moments when Ardern stood up to deliver the 1pm daily updates began much earlier in the day.
There was a meeting with her staff – those still in her office included some of those in her "work bubble" - chief press secretary Andrew Campbell, chief of staff Raj Nahna, and her senior private secretary Le Roy Taylor.
(Others in her work bubble include Grant Robertson and chief policy adviser Holly Donald).
Taylor was in charge of the sausage rolls, buying the frozen Alison Holst rolls from the supermarket and finding an oven in the Beehive to cook them.
Each day, either Cabinet or the Covid-19 Committee of ministers met at about 10.30am. The meetings would last an hour, or up 90 minutes depending on the agenda.
While that was under way, Campbell would start to draft the statement Ardern was to deliver at 1pm, based on what was on the agenda for that day and the key numbers and facts that were coming through.
The latest case numbers usually arrived at about 11am. There were also daily updates from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health, police and the All of Government Covid-19 team.
At about 11.30am Ardern would have a teleconference with Bloomfield, and sometimes other members of the Covid-19 response team such as police Commissioner Andy Coster, and civil defence head Sarah Stuart Black. Nahna and Campbell would sit in on it.
In that call, Ardern and Bloomfield would map out what needed to be said that day, and which of them would say it. Ardern would ask further details on the cases for that day, and on other matters such as contact tracing and testing.
After that call, Ardern would turn her attention to the draft script Campbell had written up. That consisted largely of the nuts and bolts of any announcement, and the facts and figures she would need that day.
Ardern would add to it or change it depending on what the committee had decided.
At this point, Ardern would also add her own twist – injecting the politics, the justifications and explanations and exhortations and congratulations, the concerns she wanted to address.
It was not all about speaking at press conferences, however.
Almost every night Ardern went back to Premier House and did a Facebook Live.
Her partner Clarke Gayford proved a valuable bubble addition: he knew how cameras worked. He filmed podcasts and social media clips of Ardern.
It was Gayford, too, who took the photo of Ardern talking to the Queen.
Ardern says his background is useful given her usual social media team are not in her bubble.
"Thankfully his last tertiary qualification was Broadcasting School, with [Broadcasting Minister] Kris Faafoi funnily enough."
TENS OF THOUSANDS COULD DIE: CHERRY-PICKING THE SCENARIO THAT SUITS
On March 23, when Ardern stood on the Beehive Theatrette stage to announce she was putting New Zealand into lockdown, five words echoed: "tens of thousands could die."
Ardern said that Cabinet had just seen fresh modelling that showed tens of thousands could die.
Ardern would not be more precise when asked just how many "tens of thousands" was – was it 20,000 or 99,000?
It was another eight days before the Government released the modelling they had relied on when Ardern made that statement.
It released six sets of modelling with fatality figures ranging from 14,000 up to 80,000.
It remained unclear exactly which set Ardern was referring to that day, but two of the six sets had landed in the week Cabinet met.
One showed potential fatalities of 14,700 and the other 27,600.
At the same time, the Government seemed to be trying to downplay the economic impacts.
The "scenarios" Treasury had developed were not released until about the same time as the modelling was.
Prior to then we had to rely on Finance Minister Grant's Robertson's rather vague statements that it would be "worse than the global financial crisis" and then "a quantum worse than the global financial crisis."
The Government did not need people looking at those figures and weighing up whether the lockdown was actually worth it. They need people to comply – and to be compliant.
The "tens of thousands" figure was based on highly improbable scenarios: that the Government would do absolutely nothing, that human behaviour would not change.
That was never going to be the case.
Ardern has since moderated the "tens of thousand" figure to "thousands".
And Robertson's economic scenarios have gone beyond even what the worst-case scenario was at that time.
Ardern could stand accused of exaggeration by reporting that modelling without adding explanation.
There was a need to politically justify taking such an extreme step at that point: a step that would have a massive impact on the economy, people's lives and livelihoods.
But these were necessary obfuscations and omissions.
Whatever modelling you looked at, the news was not great.
There were two suspected cases of community transmission, and 36 new cases that day.
The trajectory on that white board was worrying.
Ardern needed New Zealanders to stick to the lockdown to ensure it was worth the cost.
For that, they needed to be a scared of the virus - and they needed to trust her.
Trust her they did.
Google's mobility data showed the usual movements of New Zealand's residents to places such as parks, shops, and public transport had plummeted by up to 90 per cent in some cases, making it one of the most complied with lockdowns in the world.
Ardern carefully staged the move into lockdown, giving people just enough time to digest what was likely to come next before she announced it.
In that time, she set out clearly what was expected.
Some bits of that were easy: "be kind" became a tagline that was used in the Covid-19 advertising and was picked up by some private companies such as supermarkets.
The bubble concept was born.
One of her few failures was getting people to stop panic-shopping.
But otherwise she did it through repetitive, simple recitation of the basic rules.
Once the lockdown was in place, Ardern began to ferociously enforce it – urging people to dob in those who were breaking it.
BUSH FIRES ARDERN COULD NOT QUITE PUT OUT
There were some instances in which Ardern came up against healthy scepticism.
The assurances about personal protective equipment, contact tracing and testing capacities were constantly challenged and questioned – leading Ardern to question Bloomfield on them.
The initial frightening scenarios to get people into lockdown also cost a bit of effort when it came to emerging again. There was some concern about the decision to let schools start again – albeit only for some children.
That was not least because after four weeks of being told they could catch the virus from other people's dogs or boxes of cereal, people were now being asked to believe that children would not transmit the virus. Probably.
Then there was the April 9 confirmation that the Government was targeting "elimination" after the initial goals of trying to smooth the curves of the virus' spread.
To the layperson, "eliminate" meant it would be gone forever. But it had a different Covid-19 meaning.
Epidemiologists such as Sir David Skegg had set out what that was: the virus was well under control, and any new cases that did pop up could be found, tracked and isolated very quickly.
It was not until April 20 that Ardern herself set that out.
At that point she needed to ensure New Zealanders did not think the approach had failed simply because new cases were still coming through.
THE CROSS-WINDS OF 'WHAT IF?'
Since the lockdown Ardern has also had to contend with the cross-winds of "what-ifs".
One what-if was voiced by Professor Des Gorman this week: he said if New Zealand had closed its borders earlier and implemented stringent quarantine rules rather than relying on people to self-isolate, the lockdown need never have happened.
That did not happen because New Zealand could not get the quarantine system up and running fast enough to cater for the thousands of returning New Zealanders.
The other is the Australian what-if – the one the National Party, among others, is posing.
It posits that, like Australia, a milder lockdown might have been just as effective, allowing more businesses to continue operating provided they could do it safely.
Ardern herself has said we will never know what would have happened had things been done differently, but has maintained she moved as quickly as possible.
The what-ifs remain points of debate but are almost moot.
As Bloomfield said when criticisms of New Zealand's preparedness were put to him: "the proof is in the pudding, isn't it?"
Ardern too addressed this: "We should not confuse the success of our actions with overreaction."
THE QUESTION OF THE END
Thus far, Cabinet has been fairly united on the decisions that have been made. That could change as the May 11 decision on whether to move into level 2 looms.
NZ First's Winston Peters and Shane Jones have made it clear they want to move to level 2 – and further – as soon as below. Ardern will still want to be confident about the health response.
There is one question Ardern has yet to confront – perhaps because people are too scared of the answer.
The "elimination" approach involves keeping the borders closed until a vaccine is developed.
The big question there was voiced this week by Swedish Professor Johan Giesecke in Sweden's newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. Giesecke was advocating for Sweden's approach of trying to get herd immunity – despite the much higher death toll. Asked about New Zealand's apparent success in elimination, he said this:
"Yes, it seems they have [suppressed the virus completely]. But what are they going to do now? To keep the country virus-free, they will have to keep their borders closed. Everyone travelling in must be quarantined for 14 days before being admitted to the country, and if no good vaccine arrives, New Zealand will have to keep that quarantine for a long time. A very long time…"
Hoping for the best is not one of the bullet points on Ardern's plan.
But on this question, we are yet to find out what is.