When announcing New Zealand’s move from COVID-19 alert level 3 to 2 last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged the efforts of Team New Zealand – our five million population who ‘formed a team, and as a team, created a wall of protection for one another’.
That statement personifies our PM’s leadership in driving the response to COVID-19 and it has made a positive difference. Our successful approach has five key factors at its core:
Compassion: Sympathy and concern for the misfortune and sufferings of others has been at the heart of the approach, from support to businesses, community welfare provisions, understanding the needs of key sectors like local government and the easing of legislative burdens.
Clarity: The nature of the task was made clear to everyone – from the announcement of a four-stage alert system in mid-March, the moving through those levels and in daily messaging to the country.
Level 1 warned COVID-19 was here but was contained. A preparation phase of personal hygiene, border restrictions, contact tracing and limits on mass gatherings were all implemented.
At level 2, we understood the virus was contained but the risks were growing. This meant further border measures, events and travel cancelled and remote working wherever possible.
At level 3 we understood the disease was difficult to contain, so measures were stepped up again, and non-essential businesses and public venues closed.
Level 4 was sustained transmission (implemented after 109 confirmed cases) with strict lockdown and everyone at home until COVID-19 was under control.
A national emergency was declared under level 2, providing a clear chain of command from central government to localities. Initially health led, this morphed at level 3 to a whole of government emergency response. Our lockdown and border responses have been among the most stringent in the world and government has an 80% satisfaction rate for its handling of the crisis.
Communication: Not just from our PM, but from the director general of health (DGH) Ashley Bloomfield – who has become a national treasure with memes and a fan club to boot. The population have been treated like grown-ups from the outset, with information shared daily about cases, clusters, testing, personal protective equipment and our prospects. We’ve known each of the evidential tests that meet the levels and at every stage have been prepared for a move up or down.
Daily briefings at Parliament are broadcast live to the nation at 1pm fronted by The PM and DGH on a shared stage. They are science and fact led,with no swashbuckling and grand gestures. The consistency of presenters in the PM and DGH has given the nation confidence and security in these uncertain times as has their empathy and understanding. While of course we had the Easter Bunny classified as an essential worker, we were also reminded that in moving to lockdown at 109 cases, Italy also had faced 109 cases once, and we would ‘go hard and go early’ – a real Kiwi sporting metaphor.
How many leaders do you know who jump on Facebook live in their casuals after putting the toddler to bed to have a chat to the nation and answer questions? More locally, I’m proud to work alongside the country’s youngest Mayor – and he has Facebook ‘Lived’ with the community in Lower Hutt daily throughout the crisis. We do a joint chat weekly to update our communities and answer questions. This level of communication brings connectedness and it shows we care in what could otherwise be a real vacuum.
Collaboration: At the start of March, New Zealand’s sponsoring department, the Department of Internal Affairs, set up a COVID-19 response unit jointly staffed by them alongside SOLGM (New Zealand’s ‘Solace’) and LGNZ (New Zealand’s ‘Local Government Association’). We’ve designed guidance together which was endorsed at a national level, got messages into government and out to the nation, and we have weekly conference calls where advice is sought and given. We’ve put forward emergency legislation, and jointly identified problems and sourced solutions. It’s always a challenge to join up across the whole of government and locally, but we’ve done a pretty good job together. The nation is better for our collaboration.
Citizens: Last but by no means least, the approach to COVID-19 has been citizen focused – and this takes me back to where I started. We are all in the same boat, working as a collective to adapt and protect one another. No heroes and generals, no wars and glory, no government saviour of us all.
None of that, so we can work together where we live to find a new and sustainable normal. I’m looking forward to that leadership continuing and playing my part in it.
Jo Miller is chief executive of Hutt City Council. She is a past president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and a former chief executive of Doncaster MBC