The inconvenient questions over NZ's virus setback

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
19 August, 2020

After a Covid-free century of days since the country’s last case, 11 August will be remembered as the day the lustre wore off New Zealand’s triumph over the coronavirus. With Auckland at Alert Level 3, nearly two fifths of the “team of five million” is back in lockdown.

How did we get back here? Prime minister Jacinda Ardern speculated that the virus may have hitched a ride on  an Americold cool storage container. That theory may have suited the Government, but a more realistic Director General of Health says the cool store is an unlikely culprit. Epidemiologists agree. Indeed, Otago University professor and epidemiologist Michael Baker says no evidence exists for the theory that refrigerated freight helps transmit Covid-19 between people.

With cold storage likely ruled out, attention must now turn to the porous border. And the New Zealand public deserves answers to some inconvenient questions.

Why weren’t border staff tested?

During a pandemic, the border is New Zealand’s most strategic risk. It is critical to everyone’s health. And it is vital for the economy and the livelihoods of Kiwi workers.

Recognising this risk, when Minister of Health Chris Hipkins took over from the David Clark on 2 July he promised all border-facing workers would get regular health checks and asymptomatic testing. No one doubted Hipkins’ promise. After all, his predecessor lost his job due to earlier border testing failures.

Yet, the country now knows that until a fortnight ago, nearly two thirds of Auckland’s border staff had never been tested.

The tests have since started. But as public health expert Professor Des Gorman said last week, it beggars belief that the Government was not exhausting every possible opportunity to mitigate the risk of a Covid resurgence.

Yesterday Hipkins admitted that he had been receiving weekly results of tests carried out on border staff. Presumably, Megan Woods, the minister responsible for managed isolation and quarantine, also received them.

It must have been obvious to him from the results that border staff at airports, ports and managed isolation facilities were not being routinely tested. Why, then, did neither Ministers fail to act urgently to ensure the promised testing was carried out?

What about political accountability?

Initially Hipkins said he was “frustrated and disappointed” by the border testing blunder. With the revelations over the last two days, this appears disingenuous. Hipkins has since accepted some responsibility for the major gaps in the testing regime.

But does ministerial responsibility for such an egregious breach require more than this? Especially with yesterday’s announcement of a second Covid incursion at the Rydges hotel in Auckland strongly pointing to the large Auckland cluster originating from border testing failures.

Hipkins’ stance is like the chair of an airline admitting that routine maintenance was not carried out after a plane has crashed. An admission of responsibility would not satisfy the airline’s customers, shareholders or the courts. The board’s role is to monitor strategic risks. Revelations of systemic failure would cause heads to roll.

In the circumstances, what level of political accountability should New Zealanders expect from the two Ministers? Or, indeed, from the Prime Minister, as border-commander-in-chief? And what sort of political responsibility do New Zealanders need to fix the evident complacency that has surrounded the executive branch of Government’s management of New Zealand’s most critical risk?

Why is the Alert Level system still so blunt?

Auckland firms and workers doubtless breathed a sigh of relief on Friday evening when they heard the city would not face the full force of an Alert Level 4 lockdown.

But the Alert Level 3 restrictions are still extremely blunt. Rules that allow dairies to stay open, but not greengrocers, butchers or bakers are hard to understand.

They are also unnecessarily restrictive. And the restrictions matter. Auckland’s lockdown will evaporate about a billion dollars of New Zealanders’ incomes. A billion dollars is an abstract figure. But people will soon see the concrete effects playing out in job losses around New Zealand. Once again, the tourism and hospitality sectors will be hit hardest.

Back in April as the country emerged from Alert Level 4, the Government could have adopted a more flexible, principled approach to deciding which businesses could operate at Alert Level 3. With a safety-based framework, such an approach would allow all low-risk businesses to continue to operate.

Instead, in the heat of the battle back in April, the Government decided to retain a good dose of Alert Level 4’s blunt “essential services” approach when announcing the Alert Level 3 rules. At Level 3, pharmacies, supermarkets, petrol stations and dairies were permitted to open for instore purchases, but other retailers were required to shut their doors.

Yet as Alert Level 3 locks Auckland down again, why is the local butcher being treated as less safe than the local dairy?

As the New Zealand Initiative submitted to the Government in April, the Health and Safety at Work Act has a framework to evaluate how all types of work can be done safely. A principles-based framework like this would avoid the bureaucratic and restrictive limitations of the current approach.

Two weeks ago, both the Prime Minister and the Director General of Health warned Kiwis of further Covid-19 outbreaks. Their timing was remarkable. But why has the Government not applied this foresight to prepare a fit-for-purpose set of rules for a return to Alert Level 3 lockdown?

Is New Zealand’s elimination strategy sustainable?

That brings up the final question.

In March, New Zealand copied most Western countries with a strategy to “flatten the curve.” A few days into lockdown, the strategy evolved into “eradication.” And following the virus’ apparent defeat, for three months New Zealand was the envy of the world.

In the past week, the country has had a reality check. Like youth, eradication does not last forever. Instead, New Zealand faces spells of freedom, interrupted by unpredictable periods in lockdown. And with slim chances of an effective treatment or vaccine any time soon, the country risks its borders remaining closed to the rest of the world indefinitely.

In combination, the uncertain outlook for firms and workers risks exponentially increasing harm to New Zealanders’ jobs and livelihoods.

Yet, elsewhere in the world countries are learning to live with Covid-19. And despite the bleak news from the likes of the US and Brazil, the disease is proving less deadly than first thought. Indeed, death rates in some advanced countries are only a fraction of early predictions – especially for people of working-age.

In April, The Economist magazine described Covid-19’s economic versus epidemiological trade-off as “a grim calculus.” It still is. But as the data is updated, those calculations are now different than they appeared earlier in the year.

With so much at stake, the Government will be getting regular advice from its health and economic advisers. But what does the advice now say about the costs and benefits of the elimination strategy compared with the alternatives? Is it still sustainable or should the country change course?

In a world with no good options, New Zealanders must keep asking whether we have chosen the best one.

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