COVID-19: Greens call for return of 'clarity' to Government's 'muddled' messaging as cases spike, stop short of calling for 'red'

The Government's messaging on COVID-19 has become "muddled" recently with the rules not currently "crystal clear" for everyone, the Green says.

As daily cases surge again and hospitalisations significantly increase, Teanau Tuiono, the Greens spokesperson for COVID-19 Response, says "clarity" needs to be returned to COVID communication to ensure all communities are engaged.

But he also wants to "push back against" claims, such as from National's Christopher Luxon, that the traffic light system is "way too complex and complicated". The Green MP says it's up to the country's leaders to ensure Kiwis understand the key messages.

"I definitely think we can get there, it just takes a bit of groundwork and a bit of communication and making sure that we get that leadership in place and communicate with them clearly, particularly with our Māori communities, our Pasifika communities, and our disabled and immunocompromised whanau."

The spread of the highly transmissible BA.5 Omicron subvariant has led to daily cases figures returning to near the level they were at when New Zealand was at the 'red' traffic light setting earlier this year. Modellers have told Newshub New Zealand could once again see more than 20,000 cases each day and that tougher restrictions may be required.

The country is currently at 'orange', where masks are mandated in some indoor settings, like in retail or on public transport, but not in others like hospitality. 

The Prime Minister has said a move to 'red' wouldn't have a "marked difference" as many of the most recent cases are from an older population less likely to be attending events where gathering limits would have an impact. 

Instead, she's stressed there are actions people can take "at a personal level", emphasising the need for mask-use, for people to isolate if required, and to get vaccinated.

Tuiono told Newshub he gets concerned when "we leave it to the individual". He wants a number of "baseline protections" put in place - like ensuring N95 masks are free for everyone, that the rollout of booster shots is "equitable", and that schools have a COVID action plan - as well as clear communication.

"I think that that's a really crucial part of this," he said. "We had that clarity and it seems to have kind of disappeared and gotten a bit muddled. So getting back to that clarity, I think, is a really, really crucial, crucial thing that needs to happen."

He said the increase in cases and hospitalisation is "really concerning" and believes people "are becoming more detached from that".

Teanau Tuiono doesn't believe the traffic light system is too complex, but leaders need to do better to communicate the rules.
Teanau Tuiono doesn't believe the traffic light system is too complex, but leaders need to do better to communicate the rules. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Asked if masks should be required in other indoor settings or if the country needs to move to the 'red' setting, Tuiono said that it was important to follow the "best public health advice", but that again all rules need to be understood by all communities.

"We've got to be able to take people with us as well," he said. "So making sure the rules are crystal clear for everyone, because I don't think they are."

"If the health experts say, hey, look, we need to move in this direction, you need to have that clarity of communication in place so that if we do have to do that, we can do that quickly and in a way that everybody can understand."

The Green MP mentioned the independent review into the Delta response last year, which noted that some felt it wasn't developed with a "pro-equity perspective". He said we need to learn from past mistakes. 

"There were mistakes made with the report that came out on the Delta outbreak and how we should be leaning into that leadership within all of these impacted communities, Māori communities, Pasifika communities, listening to our immunocompromised whanau, our disabled whanau."

Tuiono believes the Government got "distracted" from listening to those voices earlier this year after the "fracas" on Parliament's front lawn and "a lot of noise from the business community".

"Because of that shift away from the 'team of 5 million' to the 'team of business as usual', that distraction is causing this muddle of communication as well," he said.

"Most people are like me, you know, we're not epidemiologists or microbiologists. But we want to have these trusted relationships with the people that know, that have that expertise, and you get that with clear, concise communication. We need to get back to that."

During her weekly media round on Monday morning, Ardern said she "never" stopped worrying about COVID-19 and continues to receive regular updates on case numbers. 

"We have a number of measures that other countries don't continue to use and they are, of course, mask-use, the fact that we continue to isolate cases and their family members and, of course, we are seeking those over 50 to get their booster," she told Breakfast.

"Those three things make a huge difference. Not everyone is necessarily following through on those."

Last week, COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall told the Health Select Committee that the traffic light system was being kept under review with the possibility of tweaks.

"At this setting in orange, we have available the most effective prevention methods which are masks and vaccines... I want to make it very clear that our emphasis is on these sorts of measures that we currently have in place in orange and looking comprehensively at whether they can be improved."

When it was revealed last month that New Zealand would remain at the orange settings, the Government also announced that it has secured a supply of 10 million child-sized masks to be distributed to schools from the start of Term 3.

"The Government will also be providing additional funding this winter to encourage schools and centre-based early childhood services to maintain healthy levels of heating and ventilation to help reduce colds, flu and COVID from spreading," said associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health said the increase in hospitalisations "emphasises the importance of everybody doing the basics well". 

"In particular, people who are unwell should stay home, take a rapid antigen test (RAT) and upload the result on MyCovidRecord, and isolate if positive or while still symptomatic. 

"Everyone should use a mask where required and especially where they may be in contact with vulnerable people - a good rule of thumb is to use a mask in all indoor places outside of your home."