Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern says selfie mistake shows need for 'lots of layers of protection' against COVID-19

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says a controversial selfie she appeared in last week shows just why the Government has put in "lots of layers of protection" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The photo was taken last week at Massey University in Palmerston North, which was under level 2 restrictions at the time. It didn't break gathering rules, with fewer than 100 present, but no one in the photo was observing physical distancing guidelines or wearing a mask.

"It was the wrong thing," Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday. "I shouldn't have taken a selfie. I'm not going to defend it."

She didn't think much of the incident until seeing the photo, which was published by Stuff on Thursday. 

"I saw the image of it and thought no, that's not good at all. I should have stepped further forward and I also should have asked for people to give themselves a bit of space behind each other as well... I shouldn't have done the selfie."

Ardern's personal popularity has been credited with Labour's rise to power in 2017 and the party's continued success in the polls. On Saturday a spokesperson for her office told Newshub "best endeavours are made to keep separated when people ask for photos", but "often members of the public will come very close to the Prime Minister which is difficult to control".

Ardern told The AM Show "those weren't my words", saying she hadn't been asked about the photo until Monday. 

"What I should know is from my experience, I know that when you go to take a selfie people rush in. That's what happens. I should have just not done it. It's about mitigation - if you don't do those things, then people don't move in like that... 

"I'm an example of how we won't always be perfect. That's why we've got to put in lots of layers of protection to look after one another."

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: The AM Show

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said on Monday while the risks were "very low" - the photo was outdoors, and the fans only thronged together closely long enough for a single photo - it was frustrating to see such a lapse of judgement from the Prime Minister.

"Try not to do those selfies. If you're gonna do those selfies wear a mask. Everybody needs to be wearing a mask," she told TVNZ.

Political commentator and former ACT Party staffer Trish Sherson told The AM Show it was a "shocker".

"Not just because of the sloppiness of the management around her on the day, but actually because of all of the Kiwis whose businesses are going tits-up, who have had to follow these rules - that's where the real rub in that photo comes from."

Mike Williams, former Labour Party president, said Ardern was put in a difficult position.

"She is incredibly popular and people just clump around her... I would be waving a big finger, if I was her, at her handlers.  I can tell you, that won't happen again." 

But Ardern declined to pass the buck onto her security detail, saying she needs to "take responsibility" and say sorry.

"Sorry is not a word that can't be spoken by me or politicians. It's sometimes treated as if it's a massive surprise if we ever apologise for anything. It was me in the image, so of course. I have no hesitation there."

Palmerston North, along with the rest of the country outside of Auckland, is now at level 1.