The Prime Minister doesn’t often take my advice, well meant as it always is. But everyone should make an exception from time to time, and Jacinda should visit Auckland. In 24 hours, I saw, heard, and felt things that Wellingtonian Government employees of the Ministry of Health, or her Beehive office, could never explain.
Dominion Road is an odd political boundary. To the west lies Mt Albert, the seat of Helen Clark and now Jacinda Ardern. To the east, Epsom that has voted ACT for the past six elections.
Dominion Road may be wide, but it’s not that wide. We are both central Auckland MPs and, until Thursday, neither of us had set foot in Auckland for over 10 weeks. A visit shows changes in Auckland since mid-August far more dramatic than any difference between Epsom and Mt Albert.
There are things you understand looking people in the eye that you don’t get on a zoom screen. There are things you’ll learn from chance encounters that you won’t pick up from scheduled meetings. Practical details that look tiny from the Beehive mean everything for business people trying to keep cash in ahead of cash out, one practical task at a time.
I visited several dozen business owners in central Auckland, some came to meet me outside their closed premises. They are putting on a brave face behind the mask, but their eyes give away desperation.
Revenues are down by 50 per cent, minimum. Eighty per cent plus is a common reduction. Few businesses are cashflow positive, instead burning up working capital. People aren’t paying invoices, as confirmed by Xero, others are borrowing from relatives or running it up against their mortgage. All wonder when it ends.
Some think the traffic light system will work, but few understand how. The kaleidoscope of first and second dose thresholds across 20 DHBs that takes us to it is even more befuddling. One thing most agree is that a new plan will be announced before the current one works.
What they want is certainty. A December 1st Freedom Day resonated with everyone I spoke to.
The malaise isn’t just economic. A woman on the street didn’t want to talk, then opened up unexpectedly. You see, she said, we had people over for picnics a couple of times, but we can’t be bothered now. There’s nothing to talk about because we’re not doing anything, people are withdrawing into themselves.
I asked a few more people about this withdrawal, it’s widespread. Sure, it’s not a scientific research method but such methods wouldn’t have looked for this feeling, let alone found it.
Some hairdressers told me that they could raise the mood of this depressed city one cut and one colour at a time –safely. They’ve fully laid out their plans for safe operation with barriers, vaccination policies, PPE and distancing. After all, their job is to wield sharp blades and nasty chemicals near people’s heads all day, so health and safety protocols are familiar to them.
Their plans have no currency in the Government’s schemes. They’re just another close contact business that can’t open. Another group that’s not using their rules is the underground haircut industry. They tell me Auckland has bootleg hair cutting, pedalled by the desperately broke to the desperately shaggy.
Most cooperation is more above board. A local burger joint has been supporting neighbourhood schools for years. The schools have promoted their 2-4-1 deal and they’ve been rushed off their feet. It keeps their revenue up, but it raises their overheads too and staff are exhausted. Something as simple as serving at the door requires two extra staff members, and there’s no shelter for waiting customers so they take number plates, so the boss runs orders out to the street. Little things, but little things that kill viability. The joint is still losing money.
Another small business has one employee bringing proceedings for providing an unvaccinated workplace, and another refusing to get vaccinated. The customers want vaccination. The owner is paralysed because the vaccine mandate is just a podium announcement. Legal advice is useless because there’s no law ready to help navigate this impasse. Parliament won’t pass one for several weeks. The same thing happened to healthcare, who got a law two weeks after the announcement and one week before mandatory compliance.
I could write another three or four columns worth of examples like this, but the point is the Prime Minister clearly doesn’t appreciate them, because she’s only listening to the Ministry of Health.
The rules of Cabinet say that only elected Ministers should attend Cabinet regularly. The unelected Ashley Bloomfield has attended Cabinet 17 times this year, more than a third of meetings. No other advisor is this close to power, further influencing the imbalance of perspective.
If the Prime Minister saw, heard, and felt what I did, we would have different decisions. Auckland would be at Stage Two, if not Stage Three, of Alert Level Three. Hospitality and retail could operate with far greater viability and little if any change in public health. A Freedom Day of December 1st would be announced, giving a certain end point for the tired eyes above the mask, and give the remaining unvaccinated folk a clear timeline to get real. I wish she’d visit.