A couple of days after news broke of the two recently arrived Covid-infected women driving most of the length of the North Island, National's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse admitted he was surprised by the level of public anger and frustration at the "catalogue of cock ups".
On the other side of the House, the Government acted like it either hadn't realised the level of anger, or alternatively was fully aware but hoped it would blow over.
Waiting for things to blow over is, quite often, a perfectly plausible strategy, especially with beltway issues more likely to excite the press than the public. But this isn't one of those issues. This breach at the border terrifies many people. To some, Covid's return threatens their lives, to others it threatens the gains from a devastatingly expensive lockdown. Given that fear is one of strongest emotions, this issue was never going to blow over quickly.
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The Government's initial response hints that it did immediately realise the trouble it had on its hands. First, came the appeal directly to the public, bypassing media scrutiny. The evening the news broke, the Prime Minister used a Facebook live event from her office to assure New Zealand her "expectations have not been met". It took less than 60 seconds for the strength of feeling to become obvious to anyone reading the messages ticking up from the bottom of the screen. "They should never have been allowed in", "there is no room for trial and error here Jacinda", "we stayed home for 6 weeks and you let these people in without testing them. Why!!!", "your team dropped the ball".
Next, the Prime Minister tried to blame external forces with a they-made-us-do-it finger-pointing exercise, suggesting this would never have happened had commentators and the opposition not kept banging on until she was forced to give compassionate exemptions so new arrivals could say goodbye to their dying loved ones. Shills for the Labour Party took the same line on social media.
Sprinkled throughout were attempts to show Things Were Being Done. The Health Minister banned all further compassionate exemptions. The Prime Minister called in Air Commodore Digby Webb to oversee all border operations but failed to mention he was already involved and she was only giving him an extra job. Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield banned all transtasman flying without a face mask, as if that might've made any difference in this debacle.
The Beehive and Bloomfield were merely throwing dust in the air to give the impression things were being fixed and, fingers crossed, the dust would make the story go away. Really, if the PM wanted an empty gesture to kill the story, she should've simply sacked someone. It didn't need to be a deserved or helpful sacking, but it would've been a more successful full stop than the series of pointless announcements.
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Anything short of a sacking was too small to placate the red hot fury of so many who'd invested so much into the Covid response.
The Government then failed to foresee the torrent of revelations from within isolation facilities that flowed after that first story of the two long-distance-driving women: multiple accounts of people released without testing, multiple accounts of mixing in isolation facilities, multiple accounts of exemptions granted after exemptions were banned, revelations of travellers absconding from a gang funeral and not being rounded up.
The impact of this may be that it showcases Woodhouse as a solid performer in National, knocks a bit off the PM's frothy popularity and reminds a few voters of the Government's trouble in getting its actions to match its rhetoric. But the biggest disappointment to the Government must be that this blemishes its otherwise fawned-upon health response. Just weeks out from the election, that would've been quite the trump card to be able to play.