New Zealand is giving us a crisis management masterclass. Prime Minister Ardern has demonstrated skilful and empathetic management of the Covid-19 crisis.
Jacinda Ardern’s performance in this crisis is considered by many to be exceptional. A Senior Lecturer in Executive Development at New Zealand’s Massey University, Suze Wilson, has analysed her response and calls it a “masterclass in crisis leadership”.
During her term as Prime Minister, Ardern has faced some gruelling challenges. A gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch and 19 tourists were killed and two dozen severely burnt by an eruption on a volcanic island. There was general approval for Ardern’s leadership on both occasions.
Bigger than both of those is the calamity of Covid-19. At stake are the health and welfare of the population and the economy.
The virus threatens the Labour Government’s objectives in the areas it considers important and where it was achieving results: The “well-being” of New Zealand’s citizens and the responsible management of the economy.
The pandemic required quick action in a complex situation, yet the Ardern Government has managed to provide a lesson in crisis management. New Zealand could be the first Western country to achieve elimination of the Covid-19 virus.
The Ardern Government acted decisively and early.
From March 15 all overseas travellers entering New Zealand were to be quarantined for 14 days and cruise ships were banned. On March 25 a state of emergency and level 4 lock-down were announced. There had not been one death in New Zealand by that time.
The nation was warned that extensive testing would be carried out and aggressive contact tracing, self-isolation and border controls would be part of life for some time to come.
The New Zealand Government has introduced a number of financial support packages and large amounts of money have already been paid through a wage subsidy scheme.
The approach by Ardern contrasts with that of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In Ardern’s post Cabinet news conference on Monday, March 23, she explained the lock-down system and announced the intention to go early and go hard. On Wednesday the whole nation would effectively go into self-isolation at level 4. She spent nearly an hour explaining and answering questions. She spoke inclusively. She said, “I hope you are all with me. We are in this together. Be kind.”
In Britain Boris Johnson produced a pre-recorded announcement and no questions were possible. He spoke for less than ten minutes.
There has been international approval for Ardern. Tony Blair’s Press Officer and adviser Alistair Campbell has written a comprehensively complimentary article about Ardern’s leadership.
The Massey academic Suze Wilson cites American research that shows leaders facing a crisis must give effective direction, provide meaning for the measures being taken and show empathy. So far Ardern’s leadership has managed to achieve all three.
The “stay home to save lives” appeal gives a direction while providing a compelling reason to comply. Through her Cabinet updates, internet video blogs and daily news conferences she has described clearly what is required of the country, explained the reasons why, and she has demonstrated empathy with those who endure difficulties as a result.
She has made clear the level 4 lock-down would not be relaxed early and she explained why.
The four week lock-down has two main objectives. During the first two weeks people who were incubating the virus would develop symptoms and be identified. People in contact with them, people sharing their “bubble”, could show symptoms during the second two weeks. In this way, with high compliance, most cases would be found and dealt with.
With a transparent explanation of the system of alert levels, everyone in the country could become informed about what is expected of them and why.
Ardern has put little emphasis on enforcement, although the police have taken action against a number of infringements of the lock-down. A report prepared by Google using cell phone location data shows New Zealanders exhibit a high degree of compliance.
Ardern has a well-developed instinct for empathy. She said she is acutely aware of the pain being felt in New Zealand’s communities. She promised more help would be provided to people suffering from stress, and the Government doesn’t want to maintain the level 4 lock-down any longer than necessary.
Ardern posted on the internet a 27 minute long discussion with a prominent psychologist and broadcaster Nigel Latta. They discussed how New Zealanders could deal with self-isolation and how they could help their children and teens to cope. They discussed strategies that included concentrating on the “mission” of flattening the curve to save lives, going easy on themselves and not obsessing over the news.
At a news conference she added a touch of humour when she announced to the nation that the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy have both been declared essential workers.
It has not been a perfect performance for the New Zealand Government. The Minister of Health David Carter is an important part of the Government’s response team, but he attracted media attention when he defied the terms of the level 4 lock-down and drove 20 minutes to his holiday home. He also drove further than necessary to ride his mountain bike.
He has since apologised to the Prime Minister and offered to resign. Ardern spoke to him “in no uncertain terms”, stripped him of his Associate Finance Minister role and demoted him to the bottom of the Cabinet list but kept him on as Health Minister. She said under normal conditions she would have sacked him, but she wanted to avoid disruption during the Covid-19 crisis.
Ardern carefully declined to criticise the Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges, who also infringed the rules. He drove over five hundred kilometres from his home in Tauranga to Wellington for a meeting at Parliament. Most other MPs joined the meeting remotely by the Zoom internet application.
Bridges said he needed to be at Parliament in order to perform his duties professionally and to be available to the media.
When asked about the incident Ardern said Zoom services were provided, but the drive to Wellington was a matter for Simon Bridges to decide.
His journey to Parliament was for a meeting of the Epidemic Response Committee, a select committee that meets three times a week to examine the Government’s response. It is a temporary substitute for Parliament which isn’t sitting during the level 4 lock-down.
Simon Bridges is chairman of the committee and he and the other members freely interrogate the Minister David Carter and the Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Ardern isn’t getting a free run from the National Party Opposition who have accused the government of not moving quickly enough and of not providing enough support for businesses. They point to shortages of testing equipment and cases of failure to enforce self-isolation by returning travelers.
However, the criticism has been muted in what appears to be a virtual political truce while the crisis persists.
By any measure the crisis is massive and complex, and while the Ardern Government has not achieved perfection so far its performance has been considered excellent.
Covid-19 is a multi-talented tragedy. It is attacking all aspects of life in New Zealand, including the potential and positivity of the Labour Government. Ardern and her team were changing the country’s course, ending the neo-liberal experiment by emphasising well-being and kindness and investing in the infrastructure of schools, hospitals and transport. It was always going to take some time. Now it will take much longer.
Max Hayton was a political correspondent and Foreign Editor in New Zealand.