Claire Trevett: How will the PM’s positive Covid test affect her big week ahead?


Covid-19 has never had a good sense of timing – and there is no good time for Prime Ministers to catch even a head cold, let alone Covid-19.

All of us should be wishing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Neve the best as they go through what more than a million other New Zealanders have gone through.

Ardern will rightly downplay the disruption to her life as simply the same as all those other people had faced – all of them have had to put things that were important to them on pause.

The timing of Ardern’s positive result on Friday night is not great for her own schedule – but it also could be worse.

The positive results of Ardern and her daughter Neve came just a day or two before her partner Clarke Gayford’s isolation period was due to end and Ardern return to normal duties.

It will mean the Government does not have its chief salesperson on deck for Budget week at Parliament. That is important – Labour has been struggling in the polls and a well-received Budget can be critical in claiming back the affections of voters. Prime Ministers are a key part in selling the Budget afterwards.

But if Ardern recovers within the seven-day isolation period, it will be over just in time for her to leave on her planned trip to the United States next Saturday.

Of the two, the second is the more important – it is something nobody can adequately substitute in for her on, especially if a White House visit is on the schedule. It is only her second trip overseas since March 2020 and the US is a key market politically and economically.

New Zealand Prime Ministers have to go there to be sure of getting any attention and to make sure we are not simply an afterthought – and it has been a very long time between trips. Ardern also has some personal star power there, evidence by her invitation to speak at the Harvard University commencement ceremony. That can be harnessed as our borders reopen.

As for the Budget, what Ardern might regret missing the most is not Budget Day itself but the major climate change Budget announcement on Monday.

Provided she is well enough by Thursday, Ardern can deliver her Budget Day speech to Parliament from home. It will mean smaller Budget Day traditions have to be skipped – notably Ardern and Grant Robertson’s particular tradition of sharing a cheese roll on the big day. Their other tradition involves Ardern buying Robertson a new tie for the day – something she can organise from home.

However, climate change was one of Ardern’s key pledges and Monday’s announcement is set to be something like a mini-Budget in itself, with media and analysts in lockups to digest the plan and hear from Government ministers before it becomes public.

Climate change and health are the big theme for the $6 billion in new spending in this Budget – somewhat controversially as the Government faces calls to do more on the cost of living.

It has been five years since Ardern famously put climate change at the top of her priorities, saying it was the nuclear-free issue of her generation.

She would have wanted to be there when the plan to deliver on that was unveiled: the Emissions Reduction Plan which sets out the concrete steps to drive emissions down, and how it will all be paid for.

Robertson and Climate Change Minister James Shaw will deliver that without her – although Robertson might need to soup up his speech a bit to cater for what the PM would have said rather than just the finance side of it.

It was something of a miracle Ardern had not already caught Covid-19. Having set the rules to live by, Ardern had followed them taking reasonable measures to keep herself Covid-free while trying to get on with her normal duties as much as possible.

She assiduously wore masks but under the orange settings had returned to more normal schedule of visits and events. By doing so she had sent an important signal to the rest of the country about living with Covid-19 – and that she did not get it from mixing in the community is also a signal of the effectiveness of the rules that remain.

Many of Ardern’s international predecessors have also had Covid-19 – the most unfortunately timed of them recently was Australian Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese who had to take a week off the campaign trail.

Many of Ardern’s fellow MPs have also had it – including National leader Christopher Luxon.Whatever their political leanings, they will wish the best for her.

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