Wait! (Photo: Getty Images)

Thanks for the letter, Winz. Just one thing. I’m not in fact dead

A letter offering condolences to David Townsend’s wife greatly exaggerated his death. It was amusing, but also concerning, he writes.

It was just another sunny, summery start to the Wellington weekend. A lunch out at a friend’s for my wife and me: a delicious rosé the lively escort to a classy menu. And a fascinating look at a hologram of the late Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil, created by our friend to be –when Covid-19 restrictions lift-on display in a French museum. Altogether the sort of day that makes you feel all’s right with the world of 5 million here and glad to be alive.

Arriving back at our house I found a letter in the mailbox addressed to my wife from Work and Income (Te Hiranga Tangata), “a service of the Ministry of Development”. Unusual, since she is in full-time employment. Remarking that “maybe they are awarding me a pension early”, she opened it and read

“Dear Valerie, We are sorry to hear of David’s death …”

The letter, dated January 15, went on to say that Winz would continue my pension for 28 days after death and that they might be able to help with my funeral expenses. My wife should keep the letter as part of my “estate records” and to obtain tax details of them she should call Winz.

Generously and fortunately, the letter, signed by a named “service manager”, went on to say, “we are always happy to talk things through with you.” But of course not that day, since it was the weekend. A call would have to be made on Monday: 8am. There was a client number, alleged to be mine, at the top of the letter. Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. We could discuss “changes in our circumstances”. Being restored to life probably qualified, we thought. And for my wife, “stopping living alone”.

After asking me how it felt to be dead, for a week at least my wife and I laughed a lot behind our green door, drank some more wine and amused a number of family and friends whose responses by email and phone ranged from humour to amazement to rage on our behalf.

After thinking more about the situation it gradually dawned that there was a seriously damaging aspect to this piece of careless, casual, sloppy bureaucracy.

I have had an overseas occupational pension for more than 20 years and given Winz’s obvious enthusiasm to get on with the job in hand there was every chance they had contacted the International Services to inform them of my death. That overseas pension would be cancelled and in view of the state of administrative chaos in the UK because of Covid-19 lockdown, might never have a chance of being restored until after I was actually dead. How might I prove over the phone that I wasn’t?

My wife and I discussed how the call might be handled in London when after interminable waiting –“all our phones are busy” – and dreadful music as background, someone answered.

Call taker: “How may we help you?”

Explanation.

“Oh ,you’re not dead and your pension shouldn’t have been cancelled. May I put you on hold?”

Aside (perhaps): “It’s him again. That nutty guy in Wellington New Zealand who says he isn’t dead and wants to keep his pension on.”

Service Manager: “Ask him to give us proof. The NZ department told us he died months ago.”

As with the lower middle cases everywhere in the western world we depend on a rickety array of mortgage, bank loans, insurances, credit cards etc. Pulling the plug on a principal source of finance brings the whole edifice crashing down the gurgler. In the UK there have been tragic cases of people stripped of their only means of support through a discredited social security system committing suicide – 69 recorded since 2014, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Monday: the call to be made on the NZ Superannuation line. 8 10 am and already “a delay of five minutes.” In fact 40 minutes: so a cacophony of terrible music with only Bic Runga and Anika Moa the exceptions. Not music to soothe savage, elderly breasts. Eventually an answer and after sharp intakes of breath when the nature of the problem was revealed, the inevitable, “let me put you on hold.”

Two hours later, with a couple of friends round for coffee and cake, a call from Winz. A case manager,  with “apologies, we made a mistake”. The deceased was someone else with a similar but not the same name, different date of birth, completely different part of the country, different wife’s name and no UK pension “Er …which we will now ask to be reinstated. But you know how it is, these things happen. We are all human. It’s human error.” Hmm, the accidental errorists.

Eventually a somewhat reluctant agreement to write a letter apologising, explaining how such a series of mistakes might have been made, and an assurance that the UK pension would be restored.

The letter from Winz arrived today, Friday 29 January. It is minimalist in style, content and tone. And my client number at the top is different from the death notice letter of last week.

The letter apologises twice “for the distress this has caused you and your wife”.

The full explanation of the cock-up is limited to “a note that was incorrect was added to your file stating that you were deceased and your superannuation was cancelled accordingly”. Really?

“This note was for a person of the same name” – actually, no – “and a very close birthdate.” But not the same. No mention of any other of the overlooked discrepancies.

The reassurance about the UK pension was limited to: “International Services have been notified of the error and will inform their counterparts in the United Kingdom to have your pension resumed.”

Finally, if we have “any questions or want help with this, please call us on our General Enquiries number … Thank you.” For what, exactly?

We have to hope that Death shall have no dominion.




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