New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has apologised for taking selfies with supporters that broke her own Covid-19 social distancing rules.
Ms Ardern announced on Monday that coronavirus restrictions outside Auckland would be eased, but admitted to making “a mistake” when standing close to workers on a construction site and taking a picture with a group of students who were huddled together without masks in Palmerston North.
She was out on the campaign trail ahead of New Zealand’s delayed general election. The election was originally scheduled for September 19, but was postponed to October 17 due to an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the country.
Judith Collins, the leader of the opposition National Party and Ms Ardern’s main rival, criticised her behaviour, calling her choices “staggering”.
“I was staggered to see the prime minister clearly not socially distancing with no mask just the other day in Palmerston North,” she said. Ms Ardern and Ms Collins will face off in the first of four debates on Tuesday night.
Speaking to reporters, Ms Ardern apologised, saying: “All the way through on the campaign trail and even before during alert level settings, I work really hard not to shake people's hands. In that particular photo I did make a mistake. I should have stepped further forward. I should have asked them to step apart from each other, and I acknowledge that.”
Ms Ardern and her government have received both domestic and global plaudits for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealand has suffered just 1,815 cases and 25 deaths. A September 21 poll by 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton gives Ms Ardern a 36 point lead in approval ratings over her nearest rival.
If elected with a majority, Ms Ardern will become the first leader in New Zealand to rule with a single-party majority since 1996.
Ms Ardern was quick to introduce restrictions, shutting borders and introducing a draconian lockdown when case numbers were still very low.
Restrictions outside the capital Auckland were lifted entirely on Tuesday, with no limit now placed on public gatherings and social distancing guidelines removed. Inside the capital, masks are still mandatory on public transport and public gatherings are limited to 100 people. However, these restrictions are due to expire on October 8, nine days before the election.
When the pictures of Ms Ardern were taken New Zealand was under a level two lockdown, during which New Zealanders must keep at least 2 metres apart in public.
It has been a difficult campaign for politicians, with normal political tactics such as door-stepping and rallies proving impossible. Debate crowds have been dramatically scaled back, with the public encouraged to watch online rather than attend in person.