PM's former science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman warns of 'frustration and anger' over COVID-19 alert level 3 deadline

The Prime Minister's former chief science advisor is warning of public "frustration and anger" over mixed messaging on when New Zealand should come out of COVID-19 alert level 3. 

Sir Peter Gluckman told the Epidemic Response Committee there is "frustration" about a lack of access to health data and that there is danger in the public not yet having clarity on when the country can safely leave alert level 3. 

"Most experts think it should be several weeks away, yet messaging suggests it might be earlier, and many businesses are acting on that basis," Sir Peter said. "Misinterpretation and overpromising can lead to frustration and anger."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said alert level 3 will be in place for two weeks and on May 11 Cabinet will decide if the country is ready to come out. 

Sir Peter said New Zealand is seen as a cohesive country around the world, but that it's "going to be put to the test in the coming months" with confusion over the alert levels, the general election coming up, and how to cope in a post-COVID world. 

"There is a frustration among those not in the loop of access to the data, how fast we're able to trace, [and] how effectively we're tracing," said Sir Peter, who was chief science advisor to the Prime Minister from 2009 to 2018. 

"I think there's much more that could be in the public domain that could help give people some certainty of where we're going. The more we can give certainty to people, the better, and I think we could do better."

Similar concerns were raised by clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland from Victoria University in Wellington before the nation was shifted out of the alert level 4 lockdown.  

He said increased "frustration, stress and narking" could be the result if the limits of the different levels were not made clear enough. 

The Government has released guidelines about each of the alert level rules, but breaches of the rules have continued, with more than 80 people prosecuted over the ANZAC weekend, and there is no clear date for retail stores when they can open again. 

'Intergenerational effect'

Sir Peter said he is particularly concerned about the "intergenerational effect" of COVID-19 and he wants "psychological resilience" prioritised in the Government's response. 

"Young people may feel increasingly angry and generational tensions may rise. They see a more uncertain and threatened future," he told the committee. 

"With much more access to devices the community now has, properly validated e-mental health treatments can be more widely applied. But these must be evidence-based. The market is flooded with invalidated self-help programmes."

The Government has funded three apps - Mentemia, Melon and Staying on Track - to help Kiwis maintain their mental health, financed by the initial $500 million COVID-19 response health package.  

Sir Peter said as more people struggle in a post-COVID society, the implications of ineffective programmes could be huge, and therefore "may need validation and certification". 

His advice comes as the Ministry of Social Development reported close to 30,000 more people on the jobseeker benefit in the four weeks since the lockdown was announced.  

"Our education system needs to look at how it might be used to develop psychological resilience in young people. A re-think is needed," he said. "It will help them be better prepared for a future dominated by change."

He said community-focused schemes to employ people, for example in conservation activities, could provide another route to self-esteem for young people, especially if they have a developmental or educational component.

But he warned people against being too confident, "We have no certainty for how the future will unfold. It's important that false hopes are not created through over-optimistic claims."

Sir Peter said some people will do well in the changed landscape, finding new opportunities, but many people will be "very uncertain, scared, frustrated and angry". 

"We know from other disasters that about 10 percent will progress to actual depression and to suicide."

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