Monday, 9 August 2021

Free Press, 9 August 2021


The Haps

ACT had another great week on tour with a record 300+ crowd packing Classic Flyers in Mt Maunganui on a Friday night as the Honest Conversations tour rolls on. There are still meetings to come, in Canterbury this week and Auckland next. The Government’s COVID response looks shakier each week. If inflation and interest rate rises weren’t coming before, they are now, it looks like the Government overdid stimulus.

Taking Stock

This Thursday, the Government will announce its plan to get our way of life back from COVID. Free Press predicts it will be an announcement of an announcement. It’s a good time to take stock of where the COVID response is up to.

A survey of the response shows the Government is too inward looking. It is not prepared to reach out and work with business and the community, limiting itself almost exclusively to health academics. It doesn’t like sharing. Its main advisory group has released nothing publicly since being formed four months ago.

A telling page on the Ministry of Health’s website is titled ‘who we’re working with’ [sic]. Well? higher risk groups, Māori and Pacific, and something called the COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy Taskforce. Nothing wrong with that, but where is, you know, business, civil society, education, and perhaps other Governments?

Perhaps that’s the wrong page? What about the Official Unite Against COVID-19 website? There are two special advisory groups listed. The ‘Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group’ is supposed to be advising the Government on overall strategy, but its members are all health academics, the closest to a business representative is Rodney Jones as special advisor.

The ‘COVID-19 Independent Continuous Review, Improvement and Advice Group.’ It is chaired by Sir Brian Roche and includes Rob Fyffe. Unfortunately, it seems only to respond to outbreaks after they happen. 

Perhaps it’s a good thing that the Government listens only to health academics when battling a public health crisis? It might be if the public health crisis was a little crisper.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a major understatement, described the Delta variant as a ‘game changer.’ Under questioning in Parliament this week, COVID-19 response Minister admitted that the Government’s response has not seen any changes to respond to Delta.

The strategy was to have a protective layer of vaccinated people at the border. Test everyone at the border. If there’s an outbreak, contact trace. Early indications of Delta’s ability to break through even the Pfizer vaccine are worrying. It incubates faster, so testing at days 0, 3 and 12 in MIQ may not catch it. The Minister admits this is a problem but hasn’t done anything. He also admits a Delta outbreak would outrun contact tracing.

Exactly when we need our Government’s response to be more sophisticated and plot a pathway to getting our way of life back, it is looking inward. Far from a team of five million, we are subject to oblique captain’s calls from an exclusive sinecure.

A more open response would be based around a specialised, multi-disciplinary Epidemic Response Unit. It would be prepared to work with business. It would publish its evidence proactively and foster an open discussion about our options as a country. Is the Government’s plan, for instance, to give everyone the chance to be vaccinated, then get on with life, or will it keep New Zealand isolated until everyone is vaccinated -an impossibility in a free society?

Unfortunately, the Strategic Public Health Advisory Group has not published anything in four months, even though Thursday’s announcement will presumably be based on its advice. We do know that the Government has spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on focus groups for its response. Free Press knows about focus groups. That’s a LOT. Perhaps the best way to learn about the Government’s plans is to volunteer for focus groups.

A better Government response would be prepared to admit it doesn’t know everything and sometimes makes mistakes. That would maintain public confidence better than insisting invulnerability.

A better response would not only work with business but be prepared to adopt its technology. The saliva testing saga is a sadly familiar example. It was recommended by the Simpson-Roche review in September last year. Only last month did the Ministry of Health admit what was known by at latest February, that saliva testing is as accurate as Nasopharyngeal testing, and a lot less unpleasant. The Government has contracted a provider, but the Minister admitted it only performed 15 (yes fifteen) saliva tests in the previous week. When you consider the effect of Delta on MIQ testing, that matters.

This Thursday’s announcement will likely be an announcement of further announcements to come. To offer substance, the Government’s response would have to be prepared to do brave things. Bring more ideas to the table by having more voices at the table. If it doesn’t, we will be locked in limbo for a lot longer than 2021.