A year on from the first week of Covid lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern tells Stuff political editor Luke Malpass about what her lockdown was like, and her Government’s plans to slowly re-open New Zealand.
It was the week the politics stopped.
When New Zealand was plunged into a level 4 lockdown Jacinda Ardern recalls a moment where the usual run of politics just stopped and all that was left was Covid and decisions.
“There’s nothing political about that period, it was literally judgement calls based on the best evidence available. And so, you know, there were some real value judgements in there, but just the politics was gone,” Ardern says.
Of course, politics did continue – the Government had made a decision that was unimaginable in Christmas 2019: to shut down virtually every business in the country, and restrict people to their homes to try and stamp out a virus that had only arrived at New Zealand shores less than a month earlier.
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The decisions were intensely political, but in a purer sense. Gone were the arguments over non-Covid policy, the sometimes belittling spectacle of Question Time in the House, tours of factories, and electorate meetings. Virtually every job in the country was going to be subsidised by the Government; it was also backing mortgages. Labour – and this was a predominantly Labour play – had decided on a course of action also backed by the opposition, the business community, the health sector; basically everyone.
“We knew, in theory, that was what we were trying to do … We were like many other countries, starting with the idea of a suppression strategy. You know, everyone talked about flattening the curve…. But I still remember being shown what flattening the curve looks like for New Zealand, and when I saw that the line for our capacity within hospitals cut right through the middle of that so-called flattened curve, I thought: ‘We have to find another way’.”
That became a lockdown and the alert levels system, and an explicit elimination strategy.
“Everything else fell away and it just came down to – and this is on-and-off the story of Covid – that when Covid is heightened, everything else stops, and you get this singular focus on getting everything back in order so then normal life can resume again.
The PM is acutely sensitive to the fact that she didn’t lose her job, a loved one, or her business, and clearly thinks that it is self-indulgent to talk about her personal situation during Covid too much.. She also knows that the fallout from Covid still has a way to run.
“In those early days having conversations, ‘OK, if we go into a lockdown, how long is this for?’ I remember thinking, ‘maybe two weeks.’ And I remember that first conversation – I was standing in the lounge in Premier House with my chief science advisor there, (and realising) ‘It will need to be more than that’.
“The idea of stopping everything for that amount of time just seemed like a huge mountain for us to bring New Zealand through, you know? We were shutting down people’s businesses. And so for me … my memories are much more stacked around the decision-making than they are the personal circumstances.”
But I want to know what it was like being the most powerful decision-maker in the country, while also being confined in a bubble with a young family. When it became clear that lockdown was coming, everyone scrambled to get where they wanted to be and tried to sort supplies, games, garden tools, booze. But what did the decision maker do?
“It was not too dissimilar… I had a family member message me the other day and say, ‘I remember when you said we’re going into lockdown, I knew it was coming … but it was still scary’.”
Like everybody else, she hadn’t expected events to move so quickly. Although Premier House is available to her, Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford live in Auckland. Subsequently, Ardern was short on clothes, which Gayford hurriedly organised, along with all the accoutrements needed for daughter Neve, who was 21 months old. Her parents were also called in, completing her family bubble at Premier House on Tinakori Road in Thorndon, Wellington.
“We were very grateful for that. Not least because I was still working a lot. And I think I would have found it very hard knowing that I’d left Clarke on his own all of that time.”
The upshot was that Neve was well catered for. Ardern and Gayford lived apart a lot, so he had become a dab hand at getting Neve’s stuff organised (which, for the uninitiated, can be a minefield of forgotten important items). It was Ardern who ended up running short on clothes and confesses to having to wear Clarke’s clothes around the house at times.
She worked mostly out of her office on the ninth floor of the Beehive, about a 10-minute walk away.
“We stripped the team right back to the bare minimum, and that was kind of a bit of an office bubble of sorts. We were seeing our family and each other, and that was it.”
The skeleton staff developed its own daily habits.
“We’d have a bit of a morning get-together to just talk about what we needed to get through for the day, what the numbers were looking like. And we’d eat Allison Holst supermarket sausage rolls. That was the ritual.
“The beehive was empty. So we went and found an oven that we could use, and there was a batch of sausage rolls almost every day.”
It’s a slightly comical image, but also a reassuringly egalitarian one.
“With anything, the hours are kind of fluid, really, because I’d go home at the end of the day, and, you know … the big difference was I consistently saw my family … no matter how much work I had to do, I could only do it from two places, and one was home, and one was the Beehive.”
This is what some of Ardern’s less sophisticated political opponents consistently misunderstand about her: she is fundamentally a small-town Kiwi with excellent manners, who likes to keep busy, isn’t overburdened with sentimentality and what you see is what you get. Although brought up Mormon, she is possessed of that protestant restlessness common in rural NZ. She finishes up our interview by commenting that she’s done enough reminiscing. She wants to talk about what’s ahead: and that’s opening up in 2021.
The Prime Minister made the call to put the country into lockdown because of Covid-19 one year ago.
The Labour majority Government is now starting to put a framework around how New Zealand is going to slowly open up and the opportunities – as well as challenges – it will pose. At a speech in front of BusinessNZ executives last week she started using a new form of language to describe what’s next for the country.
“We have essentially built a barricade. But as we all know, a barricade is not without risk,” she told the assembled audience of CEOs and other BusinessNZ members and guests.
“This has always been a tricky virus, and if there were ways to get through our barricades, it has certainly tried to find them. That is where the vaccine comes in. It offers us the chance to move from a barricade, to individual armour that we can each carry with us. And if enough of us wear that armour, we can act at the first line of defence, stopping the chain of transmission for those who for whatever reason, can’t.”
Expect that individual armour metaphor to be used much more widely by the Government this year.
“I don’t want people to be afraid. I want us to make these gains, but that people feel confident in those gains that we can do it safely,” Ardern tells me.
With a trans-Tasman bubble firming for mid-April, there will be more opportunities around getting access to more skilled migration.
“ We’ve got too many examples, where, unfortunately, people who came to New Zealand to give their skills and their labour, have been paid low, low wages. And that’s not good for them. And it’s not good for New Zealand.
“We’ve seen, I think, a bit of recalibration … But for us, it’s about just getting [to] that spot where we do have, you know, good wage growth, but we are able still to access the skills and talent we need.”
It will be one thing at a time, and the Government feels that it has built up enough trust with its Covid handling to take its time when it feels it is warranted.
It’s a far cry from where the country was a year ago.