Infection rates appear to be turning, but if the Government had its ear to the ground over the weekend, it will have heard the public mood turning, too. "Five of my mates have lost their jobs, it’s really starting to hit home." The reality of shutting down the economy and shutting people inside is getting more tangible every day. Normally, Free Press would rejoice at this Government getting into trouble, but these are different times.
The Real Costs
People are losing their jobs and livelihoods. They feel locked up and hopeless. The losses are not only economic. Mental health problems, domestic violence, and even suicide may soon claim more people in New Zealand than the virus itself. In a very real sense, the Government’s dilemma is not about lives versus dollars, but lives versus lives. People need a Government that gets good information and shares it openly so they can make plans.
We can’t have a widespread loss of confidence in the Government’s competence at a time when New Zealanders need to act collectively against a microscopic enemy. What should the Government do? In short: Tell the people, trust the people. The Government has clearly been disingenuous on testing, PPE, and its data. It may lack a plan to get out of lockdown altogether. It needs to change tack to keep public confidence and get us through this.
What The Government Needs To Do
It needs to (1) Get better data, (2) practice openness with its data, (3) be open to private sector help where the data shows it is needed, (4) start setting common sense rules about what can be done so that (5) it can help New Zealanders build resilience for a world where viruses are the norm. If it does these things, it will keep people’s confidence and get us out of this with as little pain as possible. If it doesn’t, we are in for some dark times.
The Problem With The Government’s Data
So far, the Government has relied on testing a limited range of people in very specific circumstances. Initially, you only got tested if you’d been in contact with a confirmed case, but that person had to be tested to be confirmed. The restrictions have since been relaxed. Reports are that up to half of tests submitted to labs are rejected by labs because they don’t fit the criteria. Other reports have it that test results are delayed by a week so each day's new case numbers just reflect when the tests got processed, rather than what happened in the preceding 24 hours.
Getting Better Data
The Government should have been doing planned epidemiological studies – random sampling of the public – a week ago, but that’s passed. We are not here to be blameful. We just want to see the Government start surveys now. We would like to see blood samples to see how many people have anti-bodies. Since you need symptoms to be tested, we don’t know how many asymptomatic cases there have been, but they will have antibodies. The New Zealand Blood Service takes blood from thousands of people every day. Let’s test it.
Being Transparent With The Data
Normally, it takes twenty working days for an Official Information Act request to be answered. A written parliamentary question need only be answered in five working days (extended to ten for this crisis). This crisis develops day by day. The Government should heed calls for open data. It should publish its data for welfare rolls and payouts on its schemes, daily. It should publish all of its data from testing, daily. Selective releases may help the Government control its narrative, but they do not help people make decisions in these circumstances.
Be Transparent With The Plan
Ultimately, the Government is going to have to decide to lift the lockdown, but when? It would be helpful if it acted as the "most open and transparent government" so that businesses and households could understand what the Government is likely to do. Business craves certainty and information is the enabler.
Be Open To Private Sector Help
Publishing the data would help tell the private sector know where help is needed. Every day the private sector approaches MPs' offices with offers of help. It is a big job sorting through them and when we ask the Government for advice they give us 0800 numbers and info@... email addresses. Last week, on the Epidemic Response Committee, we asked for a portal where the Government could triage offers of help. None has been established. It is more important to New Zealanders to have a Government receiving help than one too proud to ask for it.
Build Resilience For A Virus-Prone World
Too little is known about the virus to make firm predictions. It may mutate, there may be different strains. A completely different but similarly dangerous virus may emerge next season. Even if none of that happens we will need to reopen the economy pronto in a world where COVID-19 lurks. One way or another, we need to become pandemic resilient. We cannot afford to destroy the economy every time a virus gets out, the next response will have to be smarter.
Build Resilience With Better Tracing
The current contact tracing effort involves calling people on the phone. The technology being used was all available in the 1980s (cellphones are irrelevant when you can’t go out anyway). We need to adopt Singapore’s Trace Together app immediately. How does it work? If you go near someone, your cellphone records their phone number by a Bluetooth connection. You own the data and you can voluntarily share it with authorities who can tell the others they may have been infected. A massive advance in tracing without needing to compromise privacy.
Build Resilience With Smarter Rules
As Free Press lamented last week, the "essential" rules are unfair, dictatorial, and not even that safe. We should move to a regime of letting people do things they can show are safe according to common sense rules. Can you do this without coming within two metres of anyone else? Can you do it without touching surfaces others have touched? Will you take responsibility for making sure these rules are followed? (The Health and Safety at Work Act would already require this on the part of a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking).
Build Resilience At The Border (Perhaps)
Everyone wants to secure the border. It seems obvious for an island nation. However, Free Press likes data. In the last three days, overseas travel has accounted for 49 per cent of 950 cases, then 45 per cent of 1039 cases, and now 43 per cent of 1106 cases. Working backwards, only 10 out of 156 new cases in the past 48 hours were connected with overseas travel. The border issue is being overdone for now, but only because so few people are coming in. Reopening for a resilient recovery will depend on much smarter border measures.
We’re routinely called upon to Unite against COVID-19. At the moment, there is the Government doing its own thing, and the public taking orders. To truly unite, the Government must tell the people, trust the people. Collect good data and let us have it warts and all. Then make clear plans and rules so we can feel like adults involved in fighting off a major challenge to our community. If the Government fails to do this, its job is going to get very difficult in the coming weeks as economic reality hits home.