New Zealand’s highest stakes bet is taking place at the country’s border, where Covid infected Kiwis and returning residents are arriving almost every day. When you are betting the farm, you need to play your best hand. Unfortunately, what is obvious to any card player continues to elude the Director General of Health.
In response to the latest outbreak among managed isolation and quarantine workers in Auckland, Bloomfield was reported this week as saying “he would have hoped the latest MIQ workers to have tested positive for Covid-19 had been vaccinated by now.”
Yet achieving that outcome is not something the Director General should be leaving to “hope.” At least not when he has an ace up his sleeve.
In force since May 2020, the COVID-19 Public Health Response Act permits Bloomfield to direct anyone to take or refrain from taking any action likely to contribute to the risk of the outbreak or spread of COVID-19 within the boundaries of a single District Health Board. It grants the Minister of Health the same powers over the entire country.
It is this Act the Minister of Health Chris Hipkins belatedly used in September last year to require all border workers to be tested for Covid-19 at regular intervals following Auckland’s devastating August cluster. The Minister used the power again just this week to make it mandatory for employers to use the Border Worker Testing Register from April 27 following revelations that MIQ “case B” had not been tested since last November.
Using similar powers, Queensland’s Chief Health Officer issued a public health order on 31 March 2021 requiring all health workers deployed in quarantine facilities to have received at least one dose of an approved Covid vaccine by the end of that day. If the workers were not vaccinated, they could not work at the border.
In mid-February, the Ministry of Health said it expected to have vaccinated all New Zealand’s frontline staff within “two or three weeks.” A chart released a few weeks later by the Minister of Health set that date as the end of March.
To make sure that happened, all Bloomfield (or the Minister) needed to do was make an order (or orders) prohibiting employers from deploying any person in a border facing role who had not received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. This would have focussed the minds of health providers, security and transport firms and all others with border facing responsibilities. It would have side-stepped employment law or civil liberties issues. And provided it was properly policed it would have been effective.
Instead, more than a month after vaccinations of the country’s frontline staff commenced, hundreds remained unvaccinated. When will the Director General learn the country’s Covid security is too important to leave to chance?