Kate MacNamara: Governments Covid spin spend masks a failure to deliver

OPINION:

The Government’s vaccine purchase of late last year is a microcosm of what’s wrong with its priorities, and a worrying indication that ‘getting the message right’ trumps real world achievement.

The Ministry of Businesss, Innovation and Employment was responsible for negotiating contracts with vaccine-makers.

It knew it didn’t have the in-house heft for working through the details of those complicated contracts so it brought in the consultants. So far so good. It spent close to $700,000 on these third party contractors, nearly $500,000 of it on commercial advice from the law firm Bell Gully.

There’s no reason to question the spending on contract negotiation, it’s specialised and its consequences were staggeringly large.

And given that New Zealand’s first receipt of the Pfizer vaccine was months behind other countries, and very low for months more, there’s a strong argument to be made that more money should have been spent on advice.

There’s no such rationale for coughing up large sums out of that kitty for communications advice, however: the services MBIE bought with the second largest chunk of that $700,000 were for PR.

To be precise, the department spent $133,600 of its funds for “third party contractors and consultants for work on Covid-19 vaccine procurement” on communications.

To give a sense of the priority, that spending trumped the $38,000 that went on the Science and Technical Advisory Group, the $49,000 that went to a research advisor, the $12,000 paid to Horizon Research to study potential Covid-19 vaccine acceptance and uptake, and the $5,500 spent went on translation services.

The breakdown is instructive because it points to how the government, and by extension, its political masters, weighs messaging.

And to be clear, there was already plenty of that going on. By October of last year the Department of the Prime Minsiter and Cabinet had already spent some $2.5 million to create the ‘Unite against Covid 19’ and ‘Unite for the Recovery’ advertising campaigns, and would spend a further quarter of million dollars testing their “brand effectiveness”. The ‘media buy’ totalled tens of millions more.

No doubt the communications advice to MBIE (which has it’s own internal complement of some 64 public relations staff) can be spun as critical to softening up the population for eventual vaccine acceptance, when supplies arrived.

MBIE has not yet responded to the Herald’s questions: who provided the communications advice, and what was its exact nature?

But its value, of course, would be two-fold. Beyond buying vaccine acceptance it was also very likely used to produce the kind congratulatory back-patting, marketing really, that was fed to New Zealanders about vaccine procurement.

Perhaps the advice generated Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkin’s remarkable turn of jubilant hubris ‘front of the queue’ when he made the media rounds last November to describe how procurement was going.

We now know that countries like Israel, the US, and Canada paid a premium to be at the real front of the queue, so they received their shipments earliest, and consequently began rolling out and scaling up their vaccination campaigns months before New Zealand.

As Auckland University economist Robert MacCullock has estimated, it’s likely New Zealand could have paid an extra $40m (in the order of $4 more per dose) to receive early vaccine delivery.

If it had done so (combined with a competent rollout) we would now be in the position of having already offered inoculation to everyone in our small population, or close to it.

That would be a real achievement; and it would provide some choices for managing the current outbreak of the virulent delta variant now detected in the community; certainly we would have options that go beyond the heavy-handed lockdowns that remain the necessary handmaidens of an elimination strategy.

When asked by the Herald last month why the Government didn’t pay more to get Pfizer vaccines early, Hipkins claimed such a move would have been “unethical”.

It was a fatuous remark that sidestepped the Minister’s primary responsibility, which is to the New Zealand public. All the more so now that the public is again housebound in a level 4 lockdown, and footing what Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, has advised is a weekly bill of some $1.5 billion, a tally that notably excludes a host of costs, not the least of which is lost education to school children.

Minister Hipkins needs a new moral compass, if he ditched the spin doctors he could no doubt afford one.

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