At lunchtime yesterday, Jacinda Ardern was easing into full campaign mode on the main street of Whanganui. Just a few hours later, news from Auckland turned her plans, and an election campaign, on their heads. Justin Giovannetti reports from Whanganui and Wellington.
Jacinda Ardern’s first day on the campaign trail outside the friendly confines of Auckland was a display of love as much as hate. Walking down Whanganui’s Victoria Avenue yesterday, the Labour leader was greeted by a woman in tears. They embraced. “You’re wonderful,” the woman gasped. A moment later a man yelled at Ardern and asked if she was a fascist.
New Zealand is not a country divided. The polling shows Ardern to be one of the most popular leaders in recent history and her Labour party could be at the precipice of a historic victory next month. However, segments of New Zealand are angry at Ardern, angry at the Covid-19 lockdown and angry about the possibility of wearing masks.
“I’m Jacinda, nice to meet you,” the Labour leader said as she met dozens of locals in Whanganui. She shook hands, worked her way through a crowded coffee shop, took numerous selfies on the city’s main street and ducked into a packed Labour campaign office. The Covid election Ardern told New Zealanders they’d be voting in, however, was free of any fear of Covid.
Ardern then visited a mask factory and thanked the workers for increasing production as demand soared. She was asked to model a mask but refused. She then took questions from reporters in front of the symbol of Covid response and talked about her party’s desire to turn Whanganui’s seat Labour red.
Asked about protesters’ fear masks might be made mandatory, she didn’t rule out the possibility. “We need to be vigilant. All of the work that we’re doing is to try and prevent that, but we’re asking people to be prepared, solely based on what we’re seeing overseas,” she said, unaware of what was transpiring a few hundred kilometres away in Auckland.
The Labour leader had one last item on her itinerary. She hopped across town for a quick afternoon tea with party supporters. At 4pm she exited the Grand Hotel in Whanganui, sat in the silver van that had carried her from Wellington and the door was shut. Her staff had terrible news.
When the van door reopened three hours later, Jacinda Ardern was the prime minister of a different country: again grappling with the community spread of Covid-19.
The first sign of trouble came at about 2:40 pm yesterday when the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, received an urgent text message. The head of Counties Manukau Health told Bloomfield a case had been detected. He called her at 2:45pm. Seven minutes later Bloomfield’s office and the south Auckland health board held a Zoom call.
There have been false alarms in recent months and Bloomfield needed to clarify that this was the real deal. As the Zoom call continued, Ardern walked into her final public event of the day. Bloomfield had warned as recently as last week that the return of Covid-19 to New Zealand’s shores was “inevitable”. It had happened faster than he’d thought.
Health minister Chris Hipkins was the first in government to know about the cases, alerted by Bloomfield by text and a phone call around 3:45pm. As her van sped towards the capital, Ardern spoke with her chief of staff and Hipkins just after 4pm.
Ardern wanted to know whether they knew the source of the infection and whether it could be tied back to one of the country’s managed isolation and quarantine facilities.
As she asked the questions, additional testing was under way on the country’s four confirmed cases. The extra swabs were to ensure that the earlier tests hadn’t been false positives. Contact tracing had also started. Four hours after the positive results, the health department had already written an initial report and was preparing a briefing for a circle of senior officials that kept increasing in size.
By 7pm the prime minister’s van was pulling into the drive by the Beehive. The driver had kept the speedometer about 10 kilometres per hour below the speed limit as he drove on rural highways. Waiting for Ardern was Hipkins. The news wasn’t good. The source of infection hadn’t been pinpointed yet and couldn’t be linked to any of the facilities. This was a sign to Ardern that the government would have to move aggressively. If officials couldn’t trace the virus, there was a real risk it was circulating through parts of Auckland.
In two hours she had to convene the government’s senior most ministers, decide to place the country’s largest city under a lockdown and mobilise police for an unprecedented series of checkpoints. She also had to brief Auckland’s mayor and the opposition leader.
Outside the Beehive, there were rumblings that a case had made it out. The government had to warn grocery stores, doctors and a number of businesses of the changes that were coming. Then the press was called back to parliament. That was a bullhorn to the public that bad news was coming. Just after 9:15 pm, Ardern had to face the flashbulbs and yelled questions of the press gallery. As the Dominion Post’s front-page would blare today, “It’s back”.
The election is now only 38 days away.
As the country remained in shock this morning, adjusting to the end of a Covid-free honeymoon, all the political campaigns entered stasis. A day of campaigning like Ardern’s in Whanganui yesterday is currently impossible.
NZ First leader Winston Peters said his campaign bus will now stay fuelled and ready in Wellington, waiting for the return to campaigning. “Brassed off with the circumstances,” Peters said the public health response now must be paramount. He added that he has a bag of masks waiting on his bus.
The opposition’s eyes in Wellington quickly turned to election day. Parliament was supposed to be dissolved during a ceremony around noon, setting up the election. Act’s David Seymour asked the prime minister to delay dissolution, in case parliament needs to meet again if the situation worsens. Dissolution has now been postponed until Monday.
National’s Judith Collins has made a bigger request. She wants the election to be postponed until November at the earliest, preferably to next year. An overwhelming majority in parliament could pass a law extending the current term. “We think that that would be the better alternative,” said Collins.
The opposition leader took a swipe at both Ardern and Bloomfield. She said the two were not being transparent with the country and suggested important information isn’t being shared. She said her briefing from the prime minister was inadequate and bemoaned the sight of her rival appearing behind a podium watched by vast numbers of New Zealanders while she is sidelined.
“It is simply unsustainable to expect there to be a fair and just election at a time when the opposition parties and other parties in government are not free to campaign, but also when people have no certainty as to whether or not they’re going to be able to personally cast their vote on election day,” said Collins.
On the ninth floor of the Beehive, Ardern was preparing for a second press conference to tell New Zealanders of four more probable cases of Covid-19. She was also preparing to announce new health rules, directing businesses to put up QR codes for the government’s contact tracing app. Masks aren’t mandatory yet, except on flights out of Auckland.
As the prime minister prepared, National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee was on the main floor in parliament beside his leader. He was telling reporters that questions need to be asked about what the government isn’t saying about the new cases.
According to Brownlee, Bloomfield’s decision to have a test yesterday (it was negative) and the prime minister’s appearance at a mask factory in Whanganui was suspicious. “It’s an interesting series of events,” he said with a smirk.
Auckland is now in lockdown, the recent travel histories of hundreds are being traced, thousands could soon be contacted and tens of thousands of New Zealanders are lining up for tests.
About 26 hours after the country’s first tests for Covid-19 in the community turned positive in over three months, Ardern was asked if she was hiding anything.
“The idea we would do that is nonsense,” she said this afternoon in the Beehive. “If I could ask the energy of the opposition to be channelled into anything right now it would be supporting New Zealand’s overall response to this resurgence.”