2020 election campaign

Today (Sunday) National had its (virtual) campaign launch. This, the day after the election was due to take place. It also took place in the wake of an embarrassing error in its economic plan announced yesterday. They also have a completely different leadership than what was in place when the original election date was announced. To be fair to National this year has not been kind to anyone in NZ, but they seem to have been hit particularly hard.

New Zealand National Party

It is in exceptional circumstances that people can get caught out. David Clark would probably have expected to still be Minister of Health and would have looked forward to implementing the recommendations of the Health and Disability System Review. In all probability he would have been remembered as a very good minister. However, he was not equipped for the circumstances of the pandemic, and had to resign to be replaced by a better communicator. So Labour has also changed in response to the crisis.

The news media also got found out somewhat. They expected to cover the different points of view, and hold the authorities to account. What the majority of people wanted though was them to be a channel for sharing information. People didn’t want to be confused by questions, and muddying the water. Up until this year covering politics had become a game, and politicians were praised for clever politics, whether it was good for the country or not. It changed this year as people no longer wanted politics, they wanted to be part of a team.

The referenda (End of life choice & Cannabis) were set to be a big part of the election. For some people they were more important than who would form the government. Both questions are complicated and there are good arguments for and against, but there would be a danger of misinformation dominating the debates. This has got lost in all the conspiracy theories about the virus, 5G, Qanon etc. Even parties like Advance NZ and the New Conservatives who can be expected to be concerned with euthanasia, are getting involved in lockdown protests.

New Zealand Protesters Rally Against Lockdown - The New York Times

When the election date (yesterday) was announced in January the virus had not yet been given its name, and was something that affected people elsewhere. We had just started to see an effect on tourist numbers, but it looked like the election would be about economics and competence. The government was vulnerable due its failure to build as many affordable (kiwi build) houses as it had promised. On the other hand the National party leader (Simon Bridges) had failed to build any popularity.

By February it was clear that the virus effects were going to be more significant, and the government restricted inbound travel and started offering support to affected businesses. So covid-19 and the government response became the focus for politics. The general concern for health and approval of the lockdown process has carried over to popularity for the government. Ardern’s open style, her passion for kindness and her calm demeanour have helped to align people for the health response, and also to attract voters to the party.

Praised For Curbing COVID-19, New Zealand's Leader Eases Country's Strict  Lockdown : Coronavirus Live Updates : NPR

Polls gave the government an unheard of lead. Where the election was looking close in January, by May it was looking anything but. The smaller parties were struggling for oxygen and everybody was rushing to find something different to make them stand out.

An election like no other: with 100 days to go, can Jacinda Ardern maintain  her extraordinary popularity?

National found it hard to find the right message. When they had seemed hard on the government they had been punished. In the end (after 2 changes of leadership) they have settled on that they would do the same only better. New Zealand First have distanced themselves from the government saying that they disagreed with many decisions, and have been a handbrake on (what they deem to be ) bad decisions. The Greens have tried to pitch themselves as more progressive than Labour (without actually saying that Labour have been ineffective). The only smaller party that is looking to have gained is ACT which can openly criticise the government without actually offering anything.

With the second outbreak in August, and alert level 2/3 controls, campaigning became difficult. Delaying the election seemed prudent. The government might have had to pass legislation to help the health response, and needed parliament to be sitting a bit longer. So we still have 4 weeks to go. Many people will be voting based on the government’s response so far, but the next government will be in charge for 3 years. There is still more to come from the virus, and we can’t go back to normal, but increasingly the focus needs to be on what comes next.

Both major parties seem to be too keen to get things back to what they were before. The opportunity for real change seems to be missing. What do we really want NZ to look like in the future. When travel is freed up, do we really need to do so much of it? We know it is unsustainable. We have low productivity in NZ because a large portion of our economy is devoted to tourism and hospitality, which are bedevilled by low pay. We need a lot of seasonal workers from overseas to help with agricultural workloads. Nobody is talking about solving these problems and making the future better.

So if you come across politicians out campaigning, make sure you ask them the hard questions. If they say they can do things better ask them to prove it. Ask them to show why their vision of the future for NZ is the right one.

Your vote is valuable. Make them earn it.

Information, Misinformation and Theatre

We all know where to get the best information about the pandemic: from the government, Ministry of Health, and the World Health Organisation. But what about when that seems to contradict our own experience, or when our friends on Facebook are telling us something else, or when we simply don’t like what we are hearing?


Throughout the course of the pandemic the (almost) daily 1 o’clock briefings with the prime minister (PM) and director general of health (DG) have been compelling viewing. When we were stuck at home they provided us with an update in case numbers, a view of how successful we were as a country, and simple instructions for behaving and coping with the extraordinary situation. On the days when Jacinda Ardern or Ashley Bloomfield were unavailable, or when no briefing was given, we felt like we were missing something. The message was calming, but also stressing the importance of us all playing our part. We all felt part of “the team of 5 million”. They gave NZ (and the world) the concept of a “bubble” of people we could freely associate with without risking aggravating the outbreak.

The briefings have been incredibly open and honest. After the news and message, the reporters have been able to ask questions. The opposition was also given a forum for questioning ministers, officials, business people and anyone else affected by the fight against the virus. They held the government to account, and questioned the veracity of some of the statements. To most people listening it seems that the PM and DG were being badgered, and disrespected. Some of the reporters received abusive messages. The opposition had to change leader. people really wanted to believe what we were being told.

Covid-19 live updates, April 19: Nine new cases in NZ, level four exit  criteria outlined | The Spinoff
The daily briefings were unmissable and were very important for compliance

So why do we have large lockdown protests? Why did someone ignore the requirement to self-isolate, sparking the latest sub-sub-cluster and probably extending restrictions another week or more?

Cognitive Dissonance

One concern is when what people are hearing doesn’t match their personal experience.

During level 4 Bloomfield would often say that there was plenty of masks, testing supplies and flu vaccines in NZ even though they were in short supply all over the world. However GPs and aged care workers were finding it difficult to get enough. It wasn’t like New York, where intensive care nurses were using rubbish bags, and re-using masks, but it also wasn’t good enough. The poblem arises because the Ministry of Health is not a doing organisation, it is a policy organisation. GPs get their supplies from the DHBs. One DHB found that their stock of masks was unusable, another had different policies for who should get masks. People didn’t hear the reasons, or even how complicated it is, they just heard that the information they were given is not completely honest.

Official recommendations have changed over the course of the pandemic. This does not mean that the MoH & WHO are incompetent. It is they are working with very incomplete information, and as time goes on the science becomes clearer. Initially they were not recommending general use of masks, because it was not clear whether there was a net benefit (and masks were needed for medical workers). It was thought that transmission was mostly by contact. After a while the evidence came in that the virus was transmitted through the air and so mask use could be helpful. Some people felt that the changed advice made the MoH look incompetent.

NZ COVID Tracer app
The covid tracer app was not given sufficient importance initially, which mean that usage was low in level 1

Most people didn’t know any body who had the virus. This is a reflection on how successful we were in eliminating it, but it meant that people didn’t experience its seriousness. On the other hand people did experience the difficulties associated with the counter-virus measures. Some people lost their jobs. Some couldn’t get medical or dental treatment. Concerts were cancelled. Restaurant meals were unavailable. Over time the balance became hard to appreciate.


Politicians from non-government parties (even NZ First) wanted to disparage the government response. News media wanted to increase their readership and show their independence. That meant that stories where things didn’t go perfectly became highlighted.

There were an endless series of stories from people complaining about conditions in Managed Isolation facilities. Some stories would say that things were too severe, some not strict enough. National party MPs leaked stories to the media, even to the point of releasing a list of names & addresses.

In general, scientific opinion was very strongly in favour of NZ’s response, but there will always be contrarian scientists. A group of academics and business people started a campaign (plan B) pushing for a different response where we allow people to get infected, but protect the elderly and vulnerable. It is based on very questionable science and dodgy statistics, but got a lot of airtime every so often.

To some these had an effect. Any loss of confidence in the competence of the government response had the effect of reducing compliance.

Conspiracy Theories

There are people in NZ who do not trust the government (any government). Some with good reason. Campaigns against things such as child uplifts by Oranga Tamariki, unjust convictions, over aggressive policing, 5G, 1080 poison, vaccination, etc have significant and vocal (if small in number) support. This is not to mention the anti-immigrant, anti-muslim “great replacement” groups.

Material about these are often broadcast on social media. If people see an article shared by someone they know and trust, then they are more inclined to take it seriously. Some people no longer believe anything they see on TV news, or read in the newspaper, because it is at variance from the information that they are reading on Facebook. People who get paid for clicks are incentivised to create material that gets shared like that, so it gets more and more outrageous.

5G and COVID-19: the luddites are back!
In the early days of the pandemic a link was made between the centres with outbreaks and 5G networks. There was a worldwide spate of attacks on cellphone towers.

Then the focus shifted to the origin of the virus. Many slick videos pointed to an engineered virus. Some claimed it was China, some the US “deep state”. Others claimed it was a trick by Bill Gates to get us all vaccinated so that he could control us.

In NZ the practical upshot of this is that some of the people infected in the latest outbreak did not believe the official narrative. There was a reluctance to get tested and a reluctance to isolate properly. Because of this there have been more infections and it has taken longer to control the spread. Probably this will delay our return to level 1 throughout NZ.


There are a number of actions which are scientifically known to control the spread of the virus. Hand washing, masks on public transport, distancing, avoiding unventilated indoor spaces are all known to reduce the chances of getting infected. Testing, contact tracing and self-isolation are effective at controlling the spread. In combination these can reduce the reproductive rate below 1 so that an outbreak will die out.

There are some measures that are applied even though they seem to have little or no effect. These include temperature measurement, “deep cleaning” where an infected person has been, wearing masks outdoors. These (very public) measures are often a case of being seen to do something. It may be that they are necessary to reinforce the messages about the effective interventions.

If I wear a mask while walking down the street, I may not be changing the odds of my catching or spreading the virus, but I am helping to normalise mask wearing, and reminding people who see me that we still are in the middle of a pandemic. In our last period at level 1 we seemed to forget.

The year so far part 2 – Lockdown and freedom

By the end of March lockdown had become inevitable. There were multiple clusters of virus from Auckland to Bluff. Our health system was not in a state to cope with large numbers of patients. There were questions about supplies of PPE and reagents and laboratory space for testing. Our public health systems and contact tracing were woefully short of capability.

We knew what lockdown looked like from Wuhan and Northern Italy. The two experiences were quite different. They showed that people could survive and that essential supplies could be maintained. They differed in the degree of control of people’s movements. In Wuhan some residential buildings barricaded all doors leaving only one entry/exit and people had only short times they were allowed out for shopping.

The NZ lockdown was going to be a bit kinder. We were to be allowed out for unlimited local exercise. The definition of “local” was fluid, and some pushed the boundaries (including the Health Minister). Generally people understood the conditions and behaved well. The number of people walking and cycling in cities increased dramatically. DOC closed all tramping tracks, including cancelling my booking for a hut over Easter.

Wellington with few cars moving under level 4

It was quiet. Car traffic dropped away and the air was cleaner. Cycling was more pleasant. ACC claims dropped to 20% of normal and over Easter nobody died on the roads. Overall people were healthier and safer (and some even happier) while locked down.

The number of people with flu-like symptoms dropped away dramatically to almost zero during lockdown

We discovered who were essential workers. Cleaners and supermarket workers gained in status and some even got paid extra. They were the people that were out risking infection to make sure that the rest of us could survive. Many of us could work from home and were largely unaffected, but a number of people were unable to work. The government became very generous, giving subsidies to companies to pay workers when they had no revenue. There has been some abuse, but overall it has avoided some company collapses and large unemployment. The bill is still to be paid.

The number of daily cases dropped quickly soon after lockdown started.

Initially the lockdown was set for 4 weeks. Then the tail of some of the clusters kept producing cases and level 4 was extended for a bit. When level 3 started everyone held their breath to see if the number of cases would rise again. Luckily they continued to decline and we soon dropped down through the levels to 2.5, 2 and then 1 about 12 weeks after we had first gone to level 2 in March.

First longer ride to Remutaka Forest Park past Wainuiomata at level 3.

At level 1 we had freedom. The only restrictions were on international travel. Nobody can enter the country without quarantine (managed isolation) for 2 weeks. Professional rugby played in front of crowds in the tens of thousands. The NZSO gave a free concert at the Michael Fowler centre. We were the envy of the world. Toastmasters went back to in-person meetings. We had no active cases in NZ, being one of the largest countries in the world to say that.

But it was a nervous time too, and (perhaps inevitably) it didn’t last. In June we had 2 more cases. People had come from the UK and had been given leave to exit quarantine early to drive from Auckland to Lower Hutt to support their father after their mother died. After arriving at Lower Hutt they tested positive. Everyone was surprised that they were allowed out without testing. A new testing regime was instituted in quarantine. The testing picked up more cases which may have been partly because the countries where people were coming from were getting worse. Luckily the 2 cases didn’t seem to infect anyone else, so we could breathe again.

Complacency kicked in again, and the number of people presenting for testing dropped to very low levels. People didn’t use the app much. The health minister started trying to talk up testing. The evidence around the world was showing that wearing masks had real benefit, and could reduce the need for movement restrictions. Changing the message is always difficult, and the parliamentary opposition started intimating that there was something sinister behind it.

Then on August 11th the first community case was found again in Auckland. The family was tested and 4 were positive. Auckland went back to level 3 and the rest of the country to level 2. It turned out that the first case had left work sick 9 days earlier. It is not clear why they weren’t tested at the time, but complacency probably led to it. By the time they were detected they had infected 2 work places and several people on buses. Members of a church also got infected. Genomic analysis linked all the cases together even when there was no direct link found.

So now we are at level 2 (level 2.5 in Auckland). When will we get back to level 1? Do we have confidence in our health systems to cope with another outbreak? How do we get to where travel is more available? When do we get back to normal? What is “normal” anyway?

The year so far – part 1 – how did we get to lockdown?

I think I should have revived this blog at the beginning of the year or last year to have documented the course of the pandemic. It is an exceptional event (some say the most significant event worldwide since World Wide II). There are examples of personal diaries that incidentally documented world events. The diary of Samuel Pepys is interesting as it was written in London over the period of plague and fire as well as political change. The best example so far from this pandemic is Fang Fang’s diary from Wuhan (here in chinese – or available as a book in English).

Let me try to reconstruct it. It will exclude lot of personal stuff, but also miss some interesting things which look trivial in hindsight. It is hard to remember when the world ran out of masks, hand sanitiser and toilet paper.

2 December 2019: I decided to ride to work every day in Summer. I used my old (very old) road bike. It was slow (lots of people passed me), but I managed to get to work with all the showering gear and clothes I needed. As the days went on I got better at it but the limitations of my old bike became apparent. I broke a lot of spokes in my back wheel. I repaired it enough to get home.

24 December: Christmas eve – I left work early. In Petone I ran into the back of a car and broke a brake cable. I don’t know whether the cable broke causing me to hit the car, or broke after hitting the car. I bought a new cable and fixed it, but it really is time to get a new bike.

The view from Rangiwahia hut near Palmerston North 27 December 2019
Rangiwahia hut 27 December 2019

30 December: After coming back from holiday in Palmerston North. I ordered a new bike. of course I would not get it immediately due to holidays. Australian bush fires are starting to affect NZ. The air smells of smoke.

1 January 2020: I read a report that SARS was back in China. Someone (later named as Li Wenliang) posted a message on Wechat, and was admonished for spreading rumours. An outbreak of unexplained pneumonia was reported to WHO. Smoke from bush files more noticeable.

3 January: A lovely still day – I paddled down the river and across to Matiu/Soames Island. No camera to take a photo to prove it. Tension overseas as the US murder an Iranian leader in Iraq.

6 January: Back to work (on my son’s mountain bike). Not many people around town as a lot of people don’t start again until 13th. Lots of cafes and lunch places still closed. Generally I get my lunches from the New World supermarket.

8 January: My new bike arrived. I had to buy pedals and shoes, so it was not until the 10th that I could ride to work. It was much more enjoyable to ride, and I was much faster. I also ordered some more gear (lights, clothes bag etc) from Aliexpress in China.

16 January: Japan reported its first case of the virus. Suddenly it looks closer to my son, studying in Kobe.

20 January: the fish and chip shop across the road from work has a note saying that they have come back from China (Guangzhou), but will stay closed for another week as they didn’t want to risk spreading the virus – as cases had been reported in Guangzhou.

23 January: the world watched in amazement as China locked down Wuhan, and restricted travel elsewhere.

28 January: New Zealand banned travel from China (against the advice of WHO). WHO didn’t appreciate how poorly prepared NZ was for such a disease. My bike accessories are going to take longer to arrive from China.

3 February: Share prices down in NZ due to worries about tourism and education markets.

4 February: Mercy flight bringing 158 New Zealanders from Wuhan arrived. The passengers go to quarantine in Whangaparaoa for 2 weeks.

17 February: memorial for cyclist killed on SH2 a few weeks ago.

25 February: Big drop in share price all over the world as Chinese production dries up and recession looks inevitable.

28 February: first confirmed case of the virus in NZ in a woman who traveled from Iran.

2 March: Travelers from Northern Italy and South Korea are required to self-isolate for 2 week.

16 March: I bought a freezer to stock up on meat. Who knows what is going to happen, but NZ is not immune to what is happening overseas. Time to start hoarding flour, rice, canned food etc.

18 March: the government warns NZers overseas to come home while they still can.

21 March: The PM announces the 4 level alert system and says that NZ will immediately go to level 2.

23 March: With confirmed infections growing the PM announces that NZ will move to level 3 and that level 4 will start in 2 days time for 4 weeks. I go home early to get my home office set up.

24 March: I return to the office (by bike) to pick up some more possessions, and to reset my password in anticipation that it might be difficult from home. Lots of people were taking chairs desks, screens etc home so that they could set up. Nobody knew how long before we could return.

26 March: Working from home: At lunchtime I went out for a bike ride around the Hutt valley. There were almost no cars. It was quiet, and the smells had gone. I could enjoy lockdown I think.

Back to the blog

The toastmaster’s project “Write a compelling blog”.

The project requires me to write a minimum of 8 blog posts in a month. That means that I will be adding a post every 2-3 days to this blog during September. I will probably write about the things that occupy my thoughts:

  • toastmasters
  • cycling
  • work (technology)
  • politics
  • covid-19

I might also throw in something else just to confuse people.

So lots have happened since I last picked up my pen keyboard. In response to the pandemic, NZ has settled on a strategy of elimination and we experienced 5 weeks of stringent lockdown, followed by slowly freeing up until we had 2 months of almost normality. Now that we are in the second phase of a second wave it might be another 2 weeks of level 2 before we can breathe again.

So yesterday, I decided I needed to go back to the office and toastmasters. It was great to get back on the bike, and as a bonus the days have lengthened to the point that it was light at 7am when I left home. Traffic seemed as heavy as ever, and my legs seemed sluggish after days of inactivity.

My bike – I have acquired more lights since this photo was taken.
The sort of hazards I encounter cycling to work
A more scenic part of the commute

The office was mostly empty with only 3 others on my part of the floor. It was nice to visit a cafe for lunch and have some real conversations. Work meetings were online and I could have done everything from home just as easily. This is our new normal – we are allowed to go to the office but no more than half of us can be there at once. No more than 2 people in a lift at a time, and the stairs are marked, one set for up and the other for down. Most people are happy to stay at home.

Toastmasters at level 2 is much the same without the handshakes. We space the chairs out and probably our capacity is not much more than 10.

More people are scanning the QR codes, but still not enough. The only way we can avoid lockdowns is to know quickly who we are in contact with so tracing is quick. We will continue to get outbreaks. People and goods are coming and going and although we make the odds of infection form each interaction low, over time it adds up. NZ’s situation of many weeks of level 1 freedom interspersed with 2-4 weeks of restrictions when some gets through, is probably the best we can get. It would be nice to think we can share travel bubbles with the islands (without putting them at risk) or other countries (without putting us at risk), but that seems far off.

I wrote a speech (below) 3 years ago about voting and the election. I pondered how the chosen government would react to a war, a recession or earthquake. I didn’t think about a terrorist attack, a volcano or a pandemic, but I am happy with our choice, as I think the leadership we have experienced has been exemplary.

…and just as I write this, I learn that someone has died from covid-19 in Middlemore. It seems he has been in ICU on a ventilator for some time. It is very sad, and underlines how much we need to control the virus until we have effective medicines and/or a vaccine.