Law gets an update, pandemic marches on

National Party Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean shows off her ‘‘Wall of Openness and Transparency’’,...
National Party Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean shows off her ‘‘Wall of Openness and Transparency’’, fashioned from responses she has received to official information requests. PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Covid-19 is coming to a town near you has been the sad theme of this week, and it would be fair to say Southern MPs are not best pleased about that.

With the pandemic virus marching inexorably down the North Island and a couple of cases now emerging in Christchurch, nerves are understandably jangling.

Jibes in the House a few weeks back about which political party was going to ‘‘give New Zealand Covid for Christmas’’ ring a bit hollow now as the disease is poised to beat the festive posting deadline by quite some margin.

That frustration was borne out by the tortuous path the Covid-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill (No2) 2021 took to become law on Thursday afternoon.

The House sat for extended hours this week — as it has agreed to do for most weeks heading towards the summer recess — to try to catch up on business delayed by the August Alert Level 4 shutdown.

Liz Craig
Liz Craig
The Bill’s second reading was near the top of the order paper on Tuesday, and it either provided ‘‘the flexibility to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the community’’ if you were Invercargill Labour list MP Liz Craig, or ‘‘was already out of date’’ if you were the city’s National MP Penny Simmonds.

To be fair, both sides had a reasonable point to make.

Among other things, the (No2) Act amends the (No1) Act, which technically was repealed in May 2021 by adding a sunset provision to allow its provisions to carry over until May 13, 2023, if required.

Phew, narrow escape there.

Penny Simmonds
Penny Simmonds
But on the flipside, it also sets out a range of offences and penalties for breach of Covid-19 orders — something which may well be relevant very soon as New Zealanders resume travel — and adds a range of clauses regarding Covid-19 testing.

This point was to be revisited, at some length, the following day at the health select committee, chaired by Dr Craig and of which Ms Simmonds is a member.

Among its guests were Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, and incoming University of Otago vice-chancellor Prof David Murdoch, who is also chairman of the ministry’s Covid-19 testing technical advisory group.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Covid-19 testing is set to loom large in our lives, much of the questioning concerned the merits of the standard New Zealand ‘‘stick up the nose’’

test and ‘‘rapid antigen’’ or saliva testing.

As Prof Murdoch pointed out — several times — while saliva testing is certainly much less intrusive, it is also less effective.

Michael Woodhouse
Michael Woodhouse
While it had its place and he was not opposed to its more widespread use, for it to have its day in the sun that needed to be accompanied by the acceptance that some positive cases would likely be missed, Prof Murdoch warned .

Both National and Act New Zealand would like to see more rapid antigen testing, and for test kits to be available for sale in pharmacies and supermarkets.

However, the Government questions the wisdom of doing that, for equity reasons (it would like all testing to be universally free) and concerns whether widespread private testing would provide public health officials with the needed data to fight Covid-19.

Unsurprisingly, such divisions led to an acerbic committee stage on Thursday morning — which, thanks to the technicalities of parliamentary timekeeping, was officially still Wednesday.

Things got even more fractious when it appeared the acting Speaker had inadvertently allowed through a National amendment which under normal circumstances would not have stood a snowball’s chance of passing, before the mistake was spotted and fixed.

And fixed it remained, despite a lengthy and ultimately vain appeal by National Dunedin list MP and shadow leader of the House Michael Woodhouse before Question Time to turn back time.

And after all that there was still the third reading to go through and go through the Act did, despite various opposition MPs getting very angry indeed.

To be fair, they had a point ... Covid-19 is horrible, it has killed fivemillion worldwide and it is coming, in utter disrespect of how ever many response Acts and orders the Government might bring to bear against it.

At least the South has one thing in its favour ... with 92.3% of eligible people having had one dose of vaccine our population is more protected than most.

But this promises to be a fraught few weeks for the Government, which ended the parliamentary week trying to pass a Bill to authorise pill-checking at festivals such as Rhythm and Alps, which no-one can say hand on heart will actually be able to go ahead this summer.

Neologism of the week

Full marks to Northcote Labour MP Shanan Halbert for this one: ‘‘Sadly, can I open this week by saying there is nothing worse in this House than being ‘Invercargill-splained’ by the member Penny Simmonds.’’

Rising talent

The candidates selected by MPs to represent them in the Youth Parliament are almost always impressive young people, but Taieri Labour MP Ingrid Leary’s choice comes with a pedigree.

King’s High School student Cam Fraser is not only an academic achiever, he is also the grandson of local Labour royalty Dame Dorothy and Bill Fraser.

Another brick in the wall

A few weeks back, Southern Say shared a blank Official Information Act response received by Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean.

She’s gone a step or three further since then ... pictured above is a swag of them, making up what she calls ‘‘The Wall of Openness and Transparency.’’

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