Thomas Coughlan: Government off to slow start with Omicron, but opposition should be careful


The Government had a rocky start to its Omicron response.

A tardy Prime Minister arrived to her press conference nine minutes late on Sunday, only to find her traffic light announcement had been scooped by the Government’s own Covid website. A nervous nation already had the news it needed: red at midnight.

It was tardiness of a different kind that caught the Government out on Wednesday. After repeatedly talking down the importance of rapid antigen tests (which were – to be fair, less useful during the Delta outbreak), and blocking their import, the Government quietly changed its mind and began diverting orders intended for businesses into its own stocks.

Well, that’s what the Government said. Distributors were slightly more blunt, arguing the tests were “seconded” “requisitioned” – many versions of “nicked”, essentially.

Politics is, at its heart, a language game. Control of language is a good proxy for political control, but it is difficult not to squirm a little at the notion there’s nothing smelly about the Government “consolidating” something that belongs to someone else and that it alone will choose when that person gets what they originally ordered.

Theft by any other name smells as foul.

The frustration businesses feel is quite justified.

After months of talking down RATS and blocking their import, the Government then over-restricted their use, while faffing its own order. Now, it appears the Government wants millions of the things, and instead of getting its own, it’s “consolidating” them from the businesses that it was blocking from receiving the tests just months ago.

And on that “consolidation” malarky – at least some distributors are concerned the Government applied its significant market pressure to force manufacturers to drop smaller orders in favour of the Government’s large order.

If this is the case, there is cause for concern.

The Government seems convinced the clear benevolence of the Covid response is an excuse for common thuggery – it is not.

Gangs seize the goods they want – Governments procure them. Ends do not justify means, especially not now. Don’t be surprised if the Auditor-General decides to go sniffing.

Unlike the early stage of the pandemic, when a bit of chaos could be excused by the fact the Government was responding quickly to a challenge that no one fully understood, this latest incident appears to show a Government covering its back having failed to act quickly enough to procure tests it should have acquired a long time ago.

The fact the Government’s silence on its procurement pivot appears to have something to do with the embarrassment it faces belatedly adopting a form of testing the opposition has been calling for since last year only adds to that embarrassment.

The Government’s Covid response has been successful, but procurement, and an openness to new ideas, has been its Achilles heel.

National has been wisely keeping its head down, Covid having been more than a thorny issue for its past few leaders.

Luxon has yet to make a significant misstep on the Omicron response. So far, his biggest flub was not being clearer about whether he wanted Auckland to be in the orange or green setting last year (a small mistake, which nevertheless taught him a valuable lesson in the importance of speaking with greater precision).

He should be careful these next few weeks.

Previous National leaders have made a noose for themselves spouting off irreverently on Covid in the early stages of a crisis, only to get trapped when things work out better in the future.

Omicron is a different proposition because there appears to be widespread political and epidemiological consensus that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they even begin to get better.

But Luxon should be careful, Covid policy tends to skew Labour – and no one has yet found a way to vaccinate National leaders from succumbing to the virus.

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