As I sat at the interminably long phased lights on Taupō Quay, I decided to watch the oncoming traffic. I was thinking about traffic lights (the real ones and the new metaphorical ones). Our small country nestled at the bottom of the South Pacific is in the process of implementing some of the most restrictive mandatory rules and regulations to try to do the impossible – restrict the spread of a virus that has been designed to do just that. So, compliance with these new rules becomes quite important.
With that in mind, and as I watched a number of processions of vehicles go past, I noted the following:
1. A clearly speeding motorbike
2. Four drivers with cellphones to their ears
3. One driver texting while driving
4. One driver chucking a cigarette butt out the window
5. Many cars turning without signalling
6. One driver without a seatbelt
That was in the space of a few minutes on a road which is, right now, being resurfaced – the spattering of stones which hit my car from the motorbike was not appreciated.
But here, as I sat at a traffic light where red means stop and orange means slow down, we are about to embark on a transition where red means "go" and embarking on a system which contains many nuances and a lot of "ins, outs and what-have-yous" thrown into the mix. And someone is going to have to enforce those rules – and in a lot of cases it will be businesses where the front line of enforcement will occur.
I don't think this is effective or equitable, particularly for businesses (some already materially smacked around by lockdowns). If you think that these new rules will be rigidly adhered to by all and sundry you are dreaming.
Only last week, I saw two examples of people not even following clearly signalled business requests to mask up and/or use the Covid App. In one example a business staff person politely asked a person to wear a mask (pointing to an impossible to miss sign on the door!). The response was "I've got an exemption" – watching the defensive body language of the "customer" it was evident that his protestation was "bovine scatology" at its finest. The staff person then asked to see said "exemption", expletives followed, and the customer went to his car to retrieve it – and promptly drove off!
In the second example, a staffer asked a person to sign in before being seated in a cafe. The customer simply scowled and went directly to a table. I could see the waitress, who was not much older than my own daughter, was intimidated and went to seek help from management. However, the person exercising their own rules remained in the venue.
In both those cases you could easily have been dealing with a Covid case just as easily as dealing with someone who has had no contact with it. The issue is that both of those situations could have escalated into an ugly situation for the business and unequipped staff.
In addition, what happens if you go out and are masked up but leave your smartphone at home (as I do regularly)? Or when a staff person is clearly faced with a forged printed pass? Or when the "I've got an exemption" line is trotted out in the restricted environment of the new "traffic lights"?
My experience at the real traffic lights shows that, sure, you will get a majority of compliance but there will be a good number who will not. And it shouldn't be for businesses to put themselves or their staff in positions of risk just to be able to trade in the new system.
The PM regularly says the new traffic lights approach is "simple" – they aren't. Just as the driver texting (above) unknowingly almost hit a pedestrian, unfortunately some business owners and their staff could get hurt.
• Russell Bell is a Whanganui-based business consultant.