Covid lockdown: How the Government won friends and influenced people

John Weekes, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 8 Jun 2021, 10:48AM
(Photo / NZ Herald)
(Photo / NZ Herald)

Covid lockdown: How the Government won friends and influenced people

John Weekes, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 8 Jun 2021, 10:48AM

Influencers were deployed in Auckland's March lockdown as the Government fretted about irascible social media users undermining the pandemic response.

Newly released Cabinet papers also show the lockdown put more pressure on some schools than expected, as teachers and staff suffered 'alert level fatigue'.

Cabinet papers show it was not conspiracy theorists who were of greatest concern to the Government after the Papatoetoe cluster erupted in February.

Instead, it was thought overly harsh critics condemning infected people for not self-isolating could truly jeopardise the country's response.

An infected South Auckland man aged 20 who went to the GP on February 26 for a Covid test, then a gym later that afternoon, generated a flurry of furious criticism.

The Cabinet paper said "social licence" was crucial to a strong Covid-19 response.

"Public reaction to particular individuals who have not used the Covid-19 Tracer app or otherwise failed to follow good practices suggests a possible erosion of this."

Intelligence on reactions a Covid-19 cluster provoked on social media was discussed when Cabinet considered how to combat the pandemic. (Photo / Mark Mitchell)

Such hostility could undermine the overall pandemic response, wrote the Minister for Covid-19 Response, Chris Hipkins.

A March document showed the Government sought help from social media figures deemed to have reach in Māori, Pacific, Indian and youth communities.

Some hosts from radio stations Tarana, Flava, The Edge and Hauraki used the campaign's hashtag #stayinforit.

Disseminators of the hashtag included radio personalities Athena Angelou, lounging on a chair, and Clint Randell's pizza-eating family of four - plus their dog.

Unite Against Covid-19 also targeted advertising at younger people than before, to as young as 15, and added audio streaming service Spotify to its channels.

A Cabinet paper referred to "alert level fatigue" in Auckland schools.

"Some parents are working from home and sending their children to school as it is difficult for them to manage at home.

"This is putting pressure on schools to manage more children onsite at alert level 3 than previous events."

Papatoetoe High School was at the centre of the cluster, and of attempts to suppress the outbreak.

The school set up testing stations, and principal Vaughan Couillault said he knew three of the families infected in the outbreak.

Three months on, Couillault said he'd been too busy during the outbreak to closely follow social media, but he recalled some negativity hurled at Papatoetoe families.

"Many of those opinions had great chunks of actual information missing," he said.

Couillault said he knew some teachers and children across Auckland struggled during lockdowns.

He said teachers, like members of other professions, wanted to be the best they could be.

Lockdown at home for many meant having to simultaneously juggle desires to be the best spouse, parent and professional, Couillault said.

"Students around the place realise that education is a bit of a contact sport and it's best done face-to-face."

He said some kids did succeed when schooling was conducted remotely but many preferred to be in class.

"They want to talk to teachers that they thought they didn't like, but really value."


Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker. (Photo / Supplied)

Instead of constantly exhorting people to use the Covid Tracer app everywhere, it should be mandatory at only high-risk locations, epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker says.

The Cabinet papers described low usage of the tracer app, prompting warnings that getting casual contacts tested would be difficult.

But Baker said nightclubs, indoor music venues and places where people gathered and often drank alcohol were practical choices for mandatory scanning.

The Government had considered compulsory scanning but Hipkins told the Cabinet that raised "equity, privacy, implementation and enforcement" issues.

Baker said mandatory scanning at risky locations would encourage more use of the available app technology.

He told the Herald mandating tracer app usage in selected places would also habituate people to using the app at high-risk locations.

Music and entertainment venue visitors often kept digital tickets on their phones now, so mandatory tracer sign-ins would not add much hassle, Baker said.

Evidence showed Covid-19 was overwhelmingly spread by airborne transmission and respiratory droplets, he said.

Baker said New Zealand also needed a smarter approach to mask mandates and the public needed unequivocal guidance on where to use masks.

He said in Australia, two new B.1.617​ "double mutant" variants dubbed Delta and Kappa were present, and these recently wreaked havoc in India.

Baker said it was far too soon for complacency, especially because only about 5 per cent of Kiwis had received their second vaccine dose.

"We know what we're up against. And to get ahead, we've got to get through the next six months or so. Now is the time to upgrade our systems."