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New Zealand’s epidemiologists should not be followed blindly. They know their speciality and lead on the science. But the politicians and the authorities are ultimately responsible.
Nevertheless, New Zealand is fortunate in receiving level-headed advice from the likes of Michael Baker, from the University of Otago. It is neither shrill nor, usually, unrealistic.
Prof Baker is calling for harder new measures, predicting more incursions of the virus before vaccines can be introduced. The crucial wider point he, and others, are making is that continuous improvement and revision is necessary. We have to "get ahead" of the changing situation and constantly upgrade. Standing still will lead to failure.
Cited are soaring overseas transmission, a rise in cases at the border, including higher-risk variants and the ongoing potential for breaches in New Zealand’s system.
It would seem a matter of time before another outbreak. How disastrous that would be.
Prof Baker and his colleagues have called for the Government to "turn down the tap" from mass-infected countries. Prof Baker has also advocated a five-day pre-flight hotel quarantine, at least two pre-flight tests and a reduction in the number of MIQ spaces.
The Government, and the Ministry of Health in particular, have a history of reacting late rather than proactively. That damning report from Sir Brian Roche and Heather Simpson, finally released just before Christmas, outlined bungles, missteps and bad communications.
It took many months to respond to the Opposition’s call (which also came from epidemiologists) for pre-departure tests from most countries. The delay from outside expert advice mask use being promoted and, in some cases, mandated was even longer.
All of Dr Baker’s suggestions might not be possible. But the numbers of incomers from high-risk countries should be reduced, and they should be in separate facilities to those from the likes of Australia.
The MIQ facilities, which after the bad start largely do a good job, also need regular auditing and regular improvement, not just after a failure.
New Zealand, despite being told it was at the front of the queue, seems to be down the vaccine list, and reports yesterday of vaccine supply problems are concerning. The border screen must do its job for most of this year.
Human error, on top of system error, is ever-present. Clearly, there is no place for complacency from the authorities or the public at large.
The overwhelming of Northland testing stations this week did not reflect well on those authorities or the populace. Was there a problem with communicating priorities for testing? Why was Healthline advice inconsistent? Were the authorities too slow to put in sufficient testers at short notice? Could the systems better sort those with symptoms or those who were "contact-plus" from the worried well?
And are too many of the people swinging too easily from being lackadaisical to panicking?
One ongoing issue is in part the way the minister Chris Hipkins and the Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield are communicating.
There was a time when reassurance was vital. But the credibility of soothing words from both these men, and about the way officials are supposedly doing everything possible and everything well has worn thin.
That report last year showed how hollow some assurances were. Please, give it to us straight. We do not, or at least should not, expect perfection from the Government and the ministry. But "spin" is counterproductive.
It would seem the Government and the Ministry of Health and we the public all need regular wake-up calls so that our guard can be kept up and continuously made better.