Coronavirus: How a COVID-19 comms screw-up caused chaos in south Auckland

A south Auckland community leader says he spent most of Sunday fielding calls from locals worried there was a new outbreak of COVID-19 after the Government's official social media accounts urged everyone in the area to get tested, whether or not they were showing symptoms.

"I've been fielding calls all day - that's literally all day... from people who are scared, who are anxious," Manukau ward Councillor Efeso Collins told Newshub.

"When I saw the actual message myself I couldn't believe they'd put on our official COVID-19 website a message asking for three-quarters of a million people to go and get tested." 

The message had been on the Government's official COVID-19 website for a couple of days without causing a stir, but when it appeared on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter on Saturday evening, confusion broke out.

Collins said people in his community rely on Facebook a lot, and are quick to share information with family and friends. After online church closed up for the day and people logged onto Facebook, many saw the message and feared the worst.

"I was scrambling, wondering why people were ringing me asking if they needed to go out and tested," said Collins, who was yet to see the confusing message. When he saw it, he was alarmed.

"What the heck do we do now? ... Are we in danger? ... There were only 12 or 14 words in that tweet, and it caused so much - it just made people worried."

Efeso Collins
Efeso Collins. Photo credit: The AM Show

The confusion wasn't cleared up until Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked about it by journalists at around 1:15pm on Sunday. She didn't mention it at all in her prepared statement.

"We are spending a bit of time looking into that - what exactly occurred where we were able to have on Instagram and Twitter essentially a message that was asking 700,000 people to get a test," she told The AM Show on Monday morning.

"I can assure you, if we were going to ask that many people to get tested we wouldn't do it via Twitter."

She said the Government moved quickly to correct the misinformation. Newshub contacted the Ministry of Health early on Sunday morning to query the message, asking why what appeared to be an important request was put on social media on a Saturday evening, rather than through typical channels. We got no response - finding out at the same time as the public at Ardern's press conference that it was a mistake.

Ardern apologised for the mistake, blaming a breakdown in "communication between those who were giving the advice and those who were plopping it online".

"This is a stressful enough situation for New Zealand without having that added to it." 

She said it was likely no one person would be to blame, but should have more detail in the next 24 hours. 

"This actually has been a campaign that by and large has done an exceptionally good job of communicating with New Zealanders - there's been an example here of where it hasn't worked." 

Collins said it was reassuring to hear the Prime Minister take responsibility.

"Up until now they've done a pretty good job... what's unfortunate is you can't have the Prime Minister or [Director-General of Health Ashley] Bloomfield coming out to save every incident where their officials have got it wrong." 

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff was philosophical, telling Newshub "mistakes get made".