Opinion: Jacinda Ardern is outclassing Boris Johnson

  • 18/04/2020

By Laura Walters

OPINION: When I touched down in the United Kingdom at the start of March, the situation was escalating in Italy and Spain but things felt normal in my new home.

I went to bars and gigs, and caught up with mates. We didn't know it then, but the UK had already experienced its first COVID-19 death.

For the next three weeks, I tuned into the BBC and Number 10's daily press briefings in an effort to get a better grasp of the situation - and to watch Boris Johnson in action. How would the UK's response compare to what was happening in the Beehive back home?

What I saw during those weeks of an escalating health crisis in a nation of 67 million was a lack of clarity. The message was try to keep your distance and definitely wash your hands, but the rest was foggy. As the pandemic spread among communities, the leadership fumbled. 

One-by-one, other countries followed China's lead and locked down, while the UK continued with its 'keep calm and carry on' approach. According to The Guardian's diplomatic editor Patrick Wintour, part of the reason Johnson was hesitant to take the drastic action needed, was because he thought the idea of stopping Britons going to the pub or having to carry papers when leaving their homes was 'unBritish'.

For too long, the UK talked about an idea discounted by other countries: herd immunity. And until analysis showed the approach could result in 250,000 deaths, the nation had been trying to mitigate, rather than suppress, the virus.

When the scientific evidence became overwhelmingly in favour of a lockdown, Johnson announced the closures of schools, pubs and gyms. Following the Friday press conference my bubble was left asking: 'So, which kids are still going to school?' and 'Is this an official lockdown?' 

In Monday night's address to the nation, styled after a wartime speech, Johnson conveyed the gravity of the situation, but again, the specifics were hazy. "Are we officially in lockdown?', we asked, and 'Who exactly are essential workers?'

We now had a memorable slogan: Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. But it felt like the administration was dragging its feet on crucial details, as well as vital measures like widespread testing and contract tracing.

Effective political leadership has not been the UK's strength in recent times, and that appeared to remain the case.

Meanwhile, New Zealand was in the midst of communicating its recently established alert-level system, with level four being full lockdown. It was clear and it was comprehensive.

Just three days later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern put the country into lockdown. New Zealand did not yet have its first COVID-related death.

Ardern's approach could not have been more different to what I saw in the UK. As she said, New Zealand 'went hard, and went early'. The Prime Minister was clear and decisive in her actions and her communications, and continues to be throughout the crisis.

New Zealand has now detailed what a reduction to alert level 3, and a life outside of full lockdown, would look like - any comparable information is yet to come from the UK's leadership. While Ardern talks about a life beyond lockdown, the UK has locked in at least three more weeks of staying at home. 

While there has been some frustration levelled at the New Zealand media for repeatedly asking the same questions at the daily press conferences in the Beehive theatrette, these questions have added to the amount of information coming from the Government.

The quality and clarity of information coming out of the Beehive has served New Zealanders well throughout the pandemic; there has been no room for confusion.

Yes, there has been a lot of talk of kindness and press conferences for kids, but that has been tempered with decisiveness. And at times, Ardern has levelled stern rebukes at the 'idiots' breaking the rules - including recently demoted Health Minister David Clark.

Left-wing leaders are often criticised for being indecisive; airy-fairy even. But through this - as well as other disasters like the March 15 terror attacks and the Whakaari/White Island disaster - the Prime Minister has been more substance than stardust.

Boris Johnson in front of 10 Downing Street in March.
Boris Johnson in front of 10 Downing Street in March. Photo credit: Reuters.

Johnson fumbled for too long, and Trump has been more preoccupied with campaigning to a captive press than addressing immediate concerns, while Ardern has been clear and decisive.

Of course, National is due credit for agreeing to put politics aside and present a united front in the fight against COVID-19. Opposition politics is a vital aspect of democracy, and governments should always be held to account, but politicking has the potential to confuse and complicate issues, and right now, clarity is king.

Unsurprisingly, Ardern's leadership has earned praise from all the usual suspects in the international media scene, including a gushing piece in The Independent from Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, and other positive pieces in The Irish Times and The Washington Post.

Even divisive broadcaster Piers Morgan offered something that sounded like praise, when he urged Health Secretary Matt Hancock to take a paycut like New Zealand politicians, during a heated exchange on Good Morning Britain.

But the Prime Minister's leadership has also garnered approval at home - with the voters who count.

Last week, Labour's leaked internal polling had the party up at 49 percent, with National on 35. A Colmar Brunton poll and report, released earlier this month, found 84 percent of Kiwis approved of the Government's handling of the outbreak - compared to an average approval rating of 54 percent across G7 countries.

Anecdotally, Kiwis like the way Ardern has led the country through the crisis - just look at the comments on her Facebook Live videos. During our occasional Zoom calls, family and friends who didn't vote for Ardern in 2017 and probably didn't plan to in 2020, talk about her leadership with a sense of pride.

So while Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield might have his own song, and an increasing number of Tik Tok videos and fan Twitter accounts, it's Ardern's clear and decisive leadership that has led New Zealand through the worst of this, and will bring the country out the other side.

Laura Walters is a freelance journalist based in London.