Watching Ashley Bloomfield update us on the numbers became a nationwide ritual (Photo: Getty Images)

So long to Ashley TV: How a nation got hooked on the daily Covid show

Over lockdown, the daily Covid-19 update became appointment viewing. As the country returns to normality, Fiona Rae looks back on how the 1pm briefing became a nationwide ritual.

It was a low-budget show that screened every day at lunchtime. There were only two starring roles and about the same number of camera angles. The scripts were strictly expositional.

The location, a windowless theatre, featured two socially distanced podiums. We could hear questions coming out of the dark, but could not see who was asking them.

But as any director of a Marvel franchise movie knows, it’s not the size of the budget, it’s the strength of the ideas and the Covid-19 press briefings from the Beehive were that rare thing: appointment viewing. Which isn’t even a thing any more, not since Netflix, anyway. 

Under lockdown, with not much to do, the daily stand-ups became a nationwide ritual. The show that everyone watched and dissected and discussed. We tuned into them like an episode of Game of Thrones. In reality, they weren’t that interesting, but the possibility of wildfire kept us glued, especially with the worldwide death toll reaching Battle of Winterfell levels.

We held our breath and collectively exhaled only after mild-mannered director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield revealed the numbers. There was March 29, the black day of our first Covid death and the scary first week of April in which 89 new cases were recorded on two days. 

Never before has maths meant so much to so many: the days, the numbers, the dollars, the countdown, until finally, our first 0 day on May 4. What a thriller.

We’ve come a long way since Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced, with the slightest of dramatic pauses, that “New Zealand is at alert level … two”, but within two days would be at “alert level … four”. Like the day Princess Diana died, I remember where I was. At home, because everyone had been sent there.

We already knew that Ardern was good in a crisis, but her communications degree has again been revealed as her most valuable asset. While international versions of the same show descended into farce, Ardern’s Covid-19 scripts were a mix of hard information, catchphrases and personal messages. 

Act like you have Covid-19; team of five million; stay in your bubble; and, of course, be kind. At Easter: “You’ll be pleased to know that we do consider the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny to be essential workers.” On Anzac weekend: “Stay local, reflect on the amazing sacrifices of our forebears.” Finally, on June 8, the 75th day of lockdown: “We want to not just move to level one, we want to stay there”.

Brands have always sought to become part of the culture, but some of these messages have seeped the other way into advertising campaigns – AMI informed us that “a little kindness goes a long way”; Contact Energy saluted hairdressers of New Zealand; Anika Moa urged us to #shopnormal and #bekind at New World.

During the Covid show, Grant “Iron Bank” Robertson made it rain a few times, but it was the civil servant hitherto unknown to 99% of New Zealanders who was Tyrion to Jacinda’s Daenerys (you know, back when she was the people’s champion). Bloomfield was the other person we needed in a national emergency: so reasonable and nerdy, the press pack found he was impossible to bully. 

There was that time he couldn’t form a response when asked about “suggestions by some leaders overseas that people should be injecting themselves with bleach”. He’d just been discussing a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, for God’s sake. He was similarly lost for words when confronted with the 5G conspiracy theory.

But the show ended on Monday, replaced by press releases, and life seems a little bit empty without it. Normal service has been resumed and the folks in the retirement homes can go back to Emmerdale and the Coronation Street repeats. 

“I hope this is the last 1pm stand-up,” said Bloomfield on June 9, on the money, as always. It may have been unmissable, but we definitely don’t want a second season.



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