Bryce Edwards: Political Roundup – The Governments Covid preparedness under scrutiny

OPINION:

Jacinda Ardern’s Government was judged to have handled the first outbreak of Covid in 2020 extremely well. In 2021 there are signs that the Government is being judged differently. Highly competent lockdown decisions and communications with the public are one thing, but questions are being raised about whether the Government has used the last year to get the other parts of the jigsaw in place, or whether complacency took hold before Delta arrived.

Criticisms are coming from across the political spectrum, and from different types of media. Probably the most stinging came in investigative journalist Andrea Vance’s column published yesterday: Failings that were foreseeable and unforgivable let Delta loose.

Vance argues the Government has simply failed to carry out the necessary preparations for a further outbreak of Covid, which she says is “unforgivable”. She singles out the poor vaccination rollout, but says there are actually multiple government failures: “specialists have warned that emergency departments were at capacity, even before the outbreak. Sure enough, just a few days into this outbreak many parts of the health system were under significant strain. As of Friday, an Auckland ED was closed, testing centres were struggling to cope with demand, swabs running low and PPE supplies again in question. Self-collecting saliva testing is still not available to the public, despite being widely used overseas and much more convenient. It was only introduced as an option for border workers last month.”

Such criticisms have been building in recent months. One ongoing critic has been RNZ’s Tim Watkin who argues the Government’s continued use of the “go hard and go early” slogan sounds increasingly like empty spin, given how slowly the administration has been moving in recent months – see: The lucky lockdown? Is this the kick up the bum NZ needs?. He argues that the Government has been “riding its luck” but hopes the latest lockdown “could be the turning point that forces the Government to push harder.”

Another critic of Government Covid competency, Matthew Hooton, argued on Friday that New Zealand’s health system has remained under-resourced and under-prepared ever since Covid first arrived, and this “should be a national scandal” – see: NZ health system can’t look past lockdown (paywalled).

Reporting that senior Government ministers have been trying to pass the buck by blaming the Ministry of Health for failings in the system, Hooton says some political accountability is required: “Ardern and her Beehive should not be let off so easily. For months, ministers and strategists have privately pointed the finger at the bureaucrats for every failure while claiming success for Ardern’s rhetorical achievements. But those bureaucrats report to ministers. If their performance is as poor as claimed, then the buck stops at the top and the time for whispers is past. If the Beehive does not believe senior bureaucrats are capable of preparing the health system for a post-elimination strategy, it should say so publicly and get in people who are.”

Herald political editor Claire Trevett wrote in the weekend about the Government’s failure to prepare for Covid’s return over the last year, saying “despite warnings that it was almost inevitable, the response seems to have been caught on the hop” – see: Delta outbreak leaves PM relying on fear instead of vaccines for lockdown success (paywalled).

Trevett also presents a list of things the Government has fallen short on: “planning for the basics of locking down an unvaccinated population was neglected. For businesses other than supermarkets, it remains unclear which ones can and cannot operate at various levels. In testing procedures, there still does not seem to be an efficient system for prioritising those who are most at risk. This has been a problem in every single lockdown. Those at most risk are left to queue for hours alongside everyone else. There are still big question marks about the ability of the health system to cope – even 15 months later. Then there are the lockdown equivalents of the border workers: the frontline supermarket workers and police. It beggars belief they were not vaccinated early, in preparation for another lockdown.”

Stuff newspapers political editor Luke Malpass was equally critical in the weekend: “worryingly, what is clear from the Government’s response so far is that a lot of the problems that existed a year ago still remain. There’s not much more capacity in the health system for Covid patients, we are still primarily using swab testing, resources have been diverted from vaccines to testing (which shows prioritisation, but is also a little bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul). The nurses’ union is reporting shortages of PPE, and nasal swabs are running low in Auckland. In addition, the locations of interest seem to be coming slowly” – see: What will the Government do if it can’t eliminate Delta?.

The editor of the Sunday Star Times, Tracy Watkins, wrote her editorial yesterday on these problems: “the Government has also been too complacent – or maybe too reliant on hard lockdowns as the easy fix. The evidence is there in its failure to apply more than a Band-Aid to our critical shortage of specialist ICU staff; we went into the strictest lockdown in the world last year because our hospitals couldn’t cope with an outbreak. A year later, not much has changed. Similarly, as has already been well traversed, it lacked any sense of urgency about rolling out the vaccine programme” – see: We’ve been here before – so why weren’t we better prepared?.

Journalist Dileepa Fonseka has also looked at the various government departments responsible for keeping the country safe and running, and asked what their excuse is for letting us down. Focusing particularly on MBIE and Immigration, Fonseka outlines how the public service have told us they are busy getting systems working for the new Covid environment but now appear to have left the public in the lurch – see: Were Government departments prepared for Delta?.

MBIE was tasked with numerous Covid-related projects, such as negotiating contracts with vaccine-makers, but appears to have spent huge amounts of money on consultants, who haven’t necessarily delivered – see Kate MacNamara’s Government’s Covid spin spend masks a failure to deliver (paywalled).

In this article, MacNamara goes through the large amount of money spent on contractors and consultants, and points out that much of it went on PR specialists to handle communications, especially in terms of the vaccination programme. Despite having 64 staff working on communications, MBIE spent another $700,000 on PR advice. Another $700,000 was spent on contractors for things like vaccine procurement, with much of this going to law firm Bell Gully.

Intensive Care Unit shortfalls

The Skegg report, delivered to the Government just before the arrival of Delta, raised questions about the capacity of ICU facilities and staffing to handle an outbreak of Covid. It was New Zealand’s lack of ICU resources that apparently convinced the Government last year that such a strong lockdown was urgent.

In Matthew Hooton’s Friday column further details emerged of how this dire situation has remained the same: “There were 334 ventilators and 358 ICU beds at the end of the first lockdown. The Ministry of Health says there are just 284 fully staffed ICU beds across public hospitals. While there are 629 ICU-capable ventilators, including 133 in reserve, the number of nurses trained to work with them improved by just 1 per cent. The problem that forced Ardern to opt for her ultra-tough strategy is as bad as ever.”

On Saturday, the Herald’s Nicholas Jones had an important article about this which reported new official documents, and noted that DHBs told the Ministry of Health a year ago of the crisis that needed attention – see: Why there’s concern over ICU capacity (paywalled).

In this, ICU doctor Craig Carr says: “We now have more equipment compared with 18 months ago, but we actually have very few extra staff, and in some instances, we’ve got fewer staff”, and “Actual resourced bed capacity on a day-to-day basis, in terms of a bed with a nurse and a ventilator and all the monitors, that has not risen, to my knowledge, in the last 18 months.”

Also commenting on the ICU problem, Tracy Watkins reported yesterday: “Critical ICU shortages are just one area coming under renewed scrutiny, as the Government faces questions over whether it learnt enough from the lessons of New Zealand’s first Covid outbreak, more than a year ago. A lack of ICU beds was a major factor in New Zealand’s decision to go into the world’s strictest lockdown after last year’s outbreak, because of fears that it would quickly swamp the system. A year on, those shortages remain paramount” – see: A Sydney-scale outbreak would push our hospitals to the limit.

Vaccination complacency

The vaccine rollout has already received plenty of criticism. The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan says: “we have a woefully low rate of vaccination, which currently languishes among Romania, Albania, and Bolivia. If other parts of our public infrastructure were ranked so poorly, you’d expect ministerial resignations. The only vaccine metric the Government appears to be succeeding on is its own unambitious vaccine targets” – see: It’s no longer clear Jacinda Ardern’s strategy is the right one (paywalled).

Coughlan suggests the official vaccine targets are something of a “sham”, and concludes that “The Government has some serious questions to answer to the people put at risk by the latest Covid outbreak”.

In terms of some of the under-vaccinated groups, Michael Morrah has brought to attention the fact that a huge number of health sector workers haven’t yet been vaccinated – see: More than 3000 Auckland hospital workers yet to have a single Covid-19 vaccine dose.

There is now a problem under level 4, because many health vaccinators are being diverted to Covid testing operations – see Jo Moir’s Testing and vaccinating too much for DHBs. She reports: “One frontline health worker told Newsroom there weren’t enough staff to both vaccinate and test in Auckland. They said frontline workers weren’t being listened to and political decisions were being made without their input.”

Some commentators are very positive about the vaccination rollout progress. For instance, according to Sam Sherwood and Bridie Witton, “Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said the current rate of vaccinations was ‘excellent’.” – see: New Zealand making ‘huge progress’ in vaccinations, experts say. But the same article cites epidemiologists saying that although commentators are focusing on how many “bookings” have been made, the focus should be on the percentage of the population that is fully vaccinated.

Covid testing chaos

The system of public testing has come under fire in the last few days, with many reports on a lack of capacity and sophistication in how testing stations operate. This slowness and lack of capacity threaten to keep the country in lockdown longer than would have otherwise been the case – see Glenn McConnell’s Covid-19 testing delays could keep New Zealand in lockdown, expert says.

One of the best articles on this is Adam Pearse’s Government caution to blame for mass Covid testing chaos (paywalled).

Here’s the start of the article: “Any confidence that we learned our lessons from last year’s lockdown regarding mass virus testing should be thrown out the window. Having been through this process before, one would assume the Ministry of Health and its various providers would have a clear and concise plan to efficiently deliver mass Covid-19 testing to as many people as possible. Instead, close contacts and essential workers were made to wait more than 10 hours for a test – some were even turned away as demand trumped capacity.”

Many are now asking why the Government hasn’t rolled out the much easier and quicker saliva testing that is used in other countries. According to Matthew Hooton, “More than a year after first proposed, there is no border let alone nationwide saliva-testing programme. The reasons are disputed by the various suppliers of that technology, but all unite with the Beehive in blaming the Ministry of Health.”

For more on this, see Dileepa Fonseka’s The saliva testing stoush between Rako Science and the Ministry of Health.

Not all journalists accept that the mounting criticisms of the Government’s Covid competency are so relevant. BusinessDesk’s Pattrick Smellie has written a response in which he suggests that many of the failings are real, but they just don’t matter that much in terms of the current lockdown – see: Newsflash: this IS the roadmap (paywalled).

In this Smellie goes through the criticisms – here’s the key part: “We should have vaccinated more and earlier. True. But how does that analysis help the current situation or change the response? We should have had more intensive care beds by now. True. That we don’t is inexplicable. But that lack makes a hard lockdown all the more important. We should have had saliva testing by now. True. The fact that we don’t is damn near a scandal and such a serious miscue that by the end of the week, it would be surprising not to see movement on this issue. The border should be less porous. We should be letting butchers and greengrocers open. We can’t live like this forever. True. Probably. True. The daily press conferences keep us in suspense for too long while trumpeting the ‘good news’ that vaccination progress is improving from its stumbling start. True! But so what? None of these critiques is remotely relevant to what we do now”.

Gordon Campbell has also answered some criticisms of the Government – see: On our polarised attitudes to the Covid response.

Finally, Newstalk ZB broadcasters are arguing about whether the parliamentary press gallery is being overly compliant to the Prime Minister’s 1pm briefings. Kate Hawkesby says: “The PM apparently has issued instructions on how these 1pm pressers are to go, they have to play by the rules, and the rules appear to include only getting your question answered if your question is an easy one” – see: I wanted to stick needles in my eyes during the 1pm presser. Newstalk ZB political editor Jason Walls has replied to say “Nothing could be further from the truth” – see: In defence of the Press Gallery – No, Kate, we don’t take our order from the PM.

Dr Bryce Edwards is political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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