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Clarity and certainty are paramount as our communities meet the Covid-19 threat. Mixed messages from all and sundry may make us vulnerable.
The election campaign has started. Now, we should expect to get all the information we need about the Covid-19 health response from the public servants managing it.
Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield, unsullied by the need to seek re-election, remains the primary source of key health messages. He is the most qualified to explain where-to next.
Our politicians are qualified, in an around-about-sort-of-way, to describe the policy response and perhaps, to reinforce the messages that come from health advisers.
They can argue about which policies work but they must stay clear of anything that threatens to pitch opinion and supposition against health advice.
National Party Covid-19 border response spokesman Gerry Brownlee cast a light on the potential for mixing messages with his latest foray into the practical response.
Yesterday, he pondered the Ministry of Health’s latest guidance urging people to have masks ready in case the country has to return to Level 2.
The announcement came out of the blue and he had ‘‘seen very little evidence that would back up the reason for it’’, he said.
‘‘Why is it now when we have 94 days now with no community transmission and apparently secure borders that they’re suddenly wanting to bring this up,’’ he asked.
‘‘I think it’s a bit of a squirrel running up a tree so that we’re not looking at the teetering employment situation.’’
He appeared to posit asking people having masks in their emergency kits was a distraction from more pressing concerns. It may even be an admission our borders are more porous than we have been told.
It was, admittedly, a U-turn. For months, Dr Bloomfield and the ministry were clear there was not enough evidence to push for masks to be routinely worn in public, even as epidemiologists urged masks to be worn.
Now, masks are backed by the World Health Organisation and a new analysis covering nearly 200 countries confirms their impact on muting transmission. There was also the small matter of rampant community transmission in Victoria, increasing transmission globally, and the need to be ready should the virus ever breach our border.
Dr Bloomfield this week warned community transmission was inevitable — our border may eventually be breached — and people should not be complacent. Epidemiologists continue to say the same thing. This all meant the guidance had to change, eventually.
Such readily available information helped explain the ‘‘why now’’ of the announcement, but if it caused distraction, it was generated by politicians.
Our health advisers are apolitical public servants. It is a very serious thing to suggest they would issue an important health advisory to benefit the Government.
But in this case, health advisers were not left alone in the advising. As has been the case since lockdown, a senior minister shared the daily announcement spotlight. Minister of Health Chris Hipkins amplified the advice, in a simple act that some considered enough to infer a political motivation.
Whether it was right or wrong to do so — though we suggest it was wrong — is almost beside the point. The point is, politicians must opt for absolute care during the election campaign.
They must spend the next few weeks letting health officials make and restate official health announcements. They should defer to them, and let them explain the need for masks, sanitiser and quarantine.
We look forward to politicians not jeopardising the clear health messages coming from those who know, allowing more time to debate the policies underpinning the response and to clearly explain a plan for the future.