Wānaka lockdown breach: Psychiatrist calls on Kiwis to stop harassing, vilifying William Willis, Hannah Rawnsley on social media

A psychiatrist is pleading with New Zealanders to take heed of the Prime Minister's "be kind" message and stop harassing a couple who allegedly travelled to Wānaka during Auckland's ongoing lockdown, blatantly flouting alert level 4 restrictions.

Top horse-breeder and jockey William Willis, 35, and his 26-year-old partner Hannah Rawnsley, a lawyer at an Auckland firm, are accused of using essential worker exemptions to cross Auckland's southern boundary amid the regional lockdown. The two then travelled to Hamilton Airport and boarded a commercial flight to Queenstown, before driving to their family's holiday home in Wānaka. 

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Willis and Rawnsley said they would not be seeking further name suppression after initially being granted interim anonymity on Monday. The order lapsed on Tuesday night after the duo issued their apology to the nation, calling their own actions "irresponsible and inexcusable".

The two have faced the wrath of the public since the news of the alleged breach surfaced earlier this week, with enraged Kiwis - particularly Aucklanders - calling out the couple for their "selfish", "entitled" and "arrogant" behaviour across social media. Embattled Auckland is trudging through its fifth week in lockdown after a case of COVID-19 was detected in the community on August 17. The outbreak has since escalated to 970. 

And Willis and Rawnsley have become a clear target for Aucklanders' ire, with the couple subjected to torrents of abuse online - even reportedly receiving death threats.

Psychiatrist Christoper Gale, a senior lecturer at the University of Otago's Department of Psychological Medicine, says the treatment of Willis and Rawnsley has been appalling.

Speaking to Newshub on Tuesday evening, Gale said he is shocked by the onslaught of vile messages aimed at the couple, noting that social media has provided an open space for people to actively vilify, harass and shame the duo.

"I'm not sure what to do about social media - amplification of stigmatisation and shaming seems to be going on quite a lot right now. We saw it with Dr [Siouxsie] Wiles earlier this week, we're seeing it again now - not only was this couple vilified and actively hated... but there was a report that someone who had a very similar name was vilified and had threats against her as well," Gale told Newshub. 

"I thought we were supposed to be a laid-back culture and a bit caring - we're not being caring with this at all."

Gale believes Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's catchphrase, "be kind", has fallen on deaf ears.

"If we're 'being kind', we've got to be tolerant… and work together as a bunch of people," he said. "We need to start being truly kind. Sometimes you've got to look after that neighbour who's alone, lean over the fence and say 'how are you'."

True kindness should know no bounds, he says - and be extended to everyone during this period of immense stress and uncertainty.

"Are we going to shame, de-platform and unperson people because they did something we disapprove of? Or are we going to have some understanding and forgiveness?

"I don't know if we can make laws to regulate these things… but I think as people we've got to remember social media... is gossip, and the best thing to do with gossip is ignore it."

William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley have faced death threats and torrents of abuse online.
William Willis and Hannah Rawnsley have faced death threats and torrents of abuse online. Photo credit: Getty Images / Supplied

Gale noted that people who are actively vilifying Willis and Rawnsley online would likely not have the guts, nor integrity, to express those thoughts to their faces. 

"I think the death threats are horrible and I think social media at the moment has become an amplifier of negative thinking, an amplifier of bad things," he said.

"What's happening now is a lot of people are making judgements, and saying things that if they actually saw the person face-to-face, they would not say. We forget these are real people dealing with the consequences of their actions.

"Social media seems to be making us fear, making us hate, making us judge - making us feel very, very good that we're not that person."

However, Gale said he thought their decision to not seek further name suppression would better serve them in the long run, as once an identity is revealed, the element of mystique is gone and people lose interest.

"If you give an apology and you get on with life, these things normally blow over… if you continue to have name suppression, the situation gets worse and worse," he said.

"There's a lot of pressure, people are doing really stupid things - we've got to be a little bit gentle and kind to each other. We're being cruel. We're being ultra judgemental."

It follows Queenstown-Lakes District Mayor Jim Boult advising the couple to stay away from Wānaka for "a fair old while" as outraged locals come to terms with the danger that could have been inflicted on the small, close-knit community.

"These people have said they did a stupid thing, they acknowledge that, they put a community in danger - thank goodness we're now assured that there is no ongoing danger. I think we should now leave it to the police to take it forward," Boult told The AM Show on Wednesday morning.

"If I was them I probably wouldn't come back to the community for a fair old while. I think I'd put some distance between now and their next visit, that would be my best advice to them.

"It is a tight community and quite understandably people were really, really unhappy about this, right across the district… it'll take a while to get over this."

Willis and Rawnsley have not yet been charged by police, but face up to six months in prison or a $4000 fine if found guilty of breaching lockdown restrictions.