The lucky Covid country

Photo: RNZ
Photo: ODT files.
It was the Friday before Christmas and Parliament had done its dash for the year. What a good time to drop the withering report into the Ministry of Health and its Covid-19 testing and contract tracing regime.

Announced, too, was almost $3billion in additional funding to pay for testing, contact tracing, and supplies of personal protective equipment and to keep the managed isolation and quarantine system going until 2022. The Government obviously wanted minimal attention paid to those Health Ministry failures.

Heavy-hitters Sir Brian Roche and Heather Simpson were commissioned urgently to investigate after several significant failures and the August Covid outbreak in Auckland.

The report had been written by the end of September. The Government received the final version in late November. It would have been relevant to the general election on October 17, even if unlikely to have changed the outcome.

But why leave it until last Friday? Earlier release would have enabled more comment and discussion and, crucially, more transparency and therefore more faith in the system.

New Zealand’s largely successful Covid response relies on trust and transparency. The delay and the timing of the release of this report chips away at that.

Every delay can mean unnecessary risks continue to be taken, that problems remain unfixed, that scrutiny does not take place.

A partial excuse for the holdup was to give the Ministry of Health time to respond to the criticisms. There were plenty of those. The final version makes sorry reading. Of the 28 recommendations, the ministry is referenced in 25.

Now, of course, the head of the ministry, Ashley Bloomfield, can proclaim action has been taken on many of the criticisms. In a statement — notably, he did not front on this damming report — he said the public could have confidence in the ministry’s ability to handle future outbreaks.

Given Dr Bloomfield had been making reassuring noises about confidence all year, we are entitled to be somewhat sceptical.

It was Dr Bloomfield and the Prime Minister who assured us on comprehensive testing of border staff that a journalist subsequently discovered was not happening. It was Dr Bloomfield who advised that there was plenty of personal protective equipment available when there was not.

People understood mistakes and misjudgements in the early rush to combat Covid-19. Even allowing for these, the decisive and thorough first lockdown and support for business were impressively and swiftly put in place. It was a saviour.

The communications via the Prime Minister and Dr Bloomfield, the bubble concept and the team of five million was vital in New Zealand’s success. But so were the epidemiologists and virus experts who pushed for better practices and swifter action and who were given a platform via the media.

We had to work together but robustly and with criticism. Often, it seemed, improvements and action had to be dragged out of authorities. Even mask-wearing was mandated too little and too late.

If the response had been left to the ministry and Dr Bloomfield alone, widespread failure would have been manifest. At times, the ministry misled its minister and its director-general.

The Roche/Simpson report said the ministry was not open to external advice and had sometimes given inadequate briefings to ministers before Cabinet decisions.

Points of view raised by other government agencies or the private sector were neglected and communications were confused.

This shows how important robust public debate was in driving improvements. It also shows the danger of putting Dr Bloomfield on too high a pedestal.

Australia is often referred to as the lucky country. Perhaps that label should be applied to New Zealand given the performance of the health ministry on Covid-19

The whole nation could so easily have been forced to spend much of the year in lockdown, like Melbourne.



How selective.... Covid mistakes in the US and it's all Trumps fault, Oz and it is Morrisons fault, even today there is an article in the ODT about Boris's failings. Yet when it comes to NZ, the dear leader cannot be blamed and the naive Dr Bloomfield gets thrown under the bus.

The height of hypocrisy came with this gem though "It also shows the danger of putting Dr Bloomfield on too high a pedestal."

I think the media and MOH did a great job on quickly informing the public where the outbreaks were linked to and the public were able to take steps to protect themselves.

I disagree with your editor.
Mr Stewart's view is a little blinkered. His opinion that "Earlier release would have enabled more comment and discussion and, crucially, more transparency and therefore more faith in the system". is a lazy guess rather than anything substantial backed up with anything concrete. An earlier release would have resulted in one thing, the Govt carefully stage managing the process to ensure the message supported their policy. On the other hand the release at the end of the parliamentary sessions allows public response to flow without interference and obfuscation by the Ministers.
I also disagree with his concluding comment that NZ can regard itself as being lucky. That is absolute nonsense. We are at the stage we are at through forward thinking policy, i.e. "lives matter more", timely management, fast and effective reaction to dealing with identified gaps in procedure, and hard work by the team of 5 million. Luck had nothing to do with it.