We're being bombarded with news and views about Covid-19. How do we separate the fact from the fudge? Are Kiwis more likely to trust their institutions than other countries'? And are they more likely to listen to experts in times of crisis than they would under normal circumstances? Science reporter Jamie Morton talked to the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard.

Otago University's Professor Nick Wilson has noted that New Zealand has the advantage of trust in our Government, which makes steps like the current lockdown easier for society to take. Do you feel we similarly have a good level of trust in our experts, compared with other countries?

There isn't great data on how much New Zealanders trust scientists, but what there is suggests that we have relatively high trust in experts.

The good thing in the case of the response to Covid-19 is that the Government and the vast majority of the science and public health community have been very well aligned.


Soon after the PM announced the alert level system and moved the country to level 2, there was a loud chorus from all sectors of science and society to increase the level.

There was huge social and cultural licence for the Government to follow the expert advice and act.

Do you suspect people are more likely to listen to and trust experts in a clear-and-present health crisis like this than they would under "normal" circumstances, such as with vaccination or fluoride?

Yes, definitely.

People are much more inclined to welcome expert views in the face of an immediate crisis than with one looming on a more distant time horizon.

Faced with constant TV footage of overloaded hospitals and unnecessary deaths overseas, people seem hungry for answers with evidence behind them.

The Ministry of Health's director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo / Getty Images
The Ministry of Health's director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo / Getty Images

Maybe I have missed it, but I am not hearing any call to *not* urgently find a vaccine for Covid-19.

That said, what risks do we face from "armchair epidemiology"- or misinformation being shared on Facebook and other platforms? Is there a danger this might undermine the measures we're now taking, or the authority behind them?


Faced with so much data, it is natural for people to want to understand it for themselves.

I was one of many people living in Christchurch watching the Geonet earthquake data and becoming an "armchair seismologist".

But it is important to remember that with so much data available, and importantly with so much data missing both in New Zealand and globally, we have to also listen to those who have been working hard all year to understand the global and national situation, not just looked at one small study or graph they saw on social media this morning.

Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles Photo / Photographers Inc
Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles Photo / Photographers Inc

Our office has spent a lot of time putting some of these smaller studies in a wider context.

We've seen some prominent Kiwi businesspeople also offering their takes and opinions on what New Zealand should be doing to meet the public health threat. Should we be treating these views any differently to that of your average mate on Facebook?

I think it is great that business leaders are behind the Government's decisive action and are basing this support on the evidence.

If prominent business people can interpret the data for parts of the community that wouldn't naturally listen to scientists and health experts, then that is fantastic.

It's also important that they get the public health and the science community to sense check the message, and I am always happy to facilitate that with a fast turnaround time.

You've been directly advising the Prime Minister and the Government throughout this crisis, as have other scientists and experts through groups like PITAG. Are you confident that the best information has been getting through to decision-makers, and that this has been acted on fast enough?

University of Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo / NZ Herald
University of Auckland physicist Professor Shaun Hendy. Photo / NZ Herald

Yes. This has been a very rapidly evolving situation and decisions have had to be made at far faster than the normal speed of government.

The Ministry of Health, PITAG, Ian Town, the chief science advisor for the Ministry of Health and myself have all played a role in connecting to national and international expertise and thinking, and feeding in expert opinion during a rapidly changing landscape.

The Prime Minister and Cabinet have been very focused on the evidence and have often checked in multiple times a day.

This helped the Cabinet take bold decisions much earlier in our Covid-19 outbreak than other countries did and enabled an aggressive elimination strategy, as called for by the epidemiologists.

How challenging has this pandemic been for our science community, in terms of communicating good information to the public, as well as to decision-makers? And why has it been challenging?

It has been a big challenge in that what we know about Covid-19 has been changing all the time.

Otago University public health professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson. Photo / Supplied
Otago University public health professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson. Photo / Supplied

For example, early evidence pointed to minimal asymptomatic transmission, but we now know that this is probably more widespread a day or so before symptoms are displayed.

Communicating a changing message is really hard - because people tend to react by saying "but a couple of days ago you said the opposite!".

However, our community has risen to the challenge.

Which particular science communicators have stood out to you as exemplars, and why?

A hat tip to all our rock star communicators, but especially Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Professor Michael Baker, Dr Michelle Dickinson, Professor Shaun Hendy and Associate Professor Siousxie Wiles.

I think what distinguishes them is an authenticity and a willingness to answer questions honestly, including simply saying "we don't know yet" or "I'll get back to you on that".

They have worked tirelessly to answer endless questions and make sense of an unprecedented situation for the public.

For Kiwis being bombarded with a constant flow of information about Covid-19, what advice do you give them for ensuring it's reliable? How do they sort the good from the bad?

The simplest way is to sense check it against trusted sources of information.

The World Health Organisation and New Zealand's Covid-19 website are a great place to start.

Nanotechnologist and science communicator Dr Michelle Dickinson. Photo / NZ Herald
Nanotechnologist and science communicator Dr Michelle Dickinson. Photo / NZ Herald

And for newer information that is still under debate, remember that this disease has only existed for a few months and there is much that we still don't know.

We all need to take a deep breath and accept that our understanding, advice, and opinions need to be constantly checked and reviewed.

That's how science works and it is good to see it in action.