Yesterday’s announcement that the whole country was going to the Covid-19 red setting was not a surprise to anyone who had watched what has happened overseas.
The Omicron variant is highly contagious and once it spreads in the community it spreads fast.
Why then was, as Andrea Vance writes, the government not better prepared – again?
New Zealand’s response to the pandemic in 2020 was lauded worldwide by scientists and the World Health Organisation.
Remarkably, it remained Covid-19 free for many days.
That success was a “major achievement”, of a flawed and underprepared system, the Government’s own investigators would later conclude.
Heather Simpson and Brian Roche delivered a brutal assessment of the Ministry of Health’s failings in two reports delivered late that year.
The outbreak that led to Auckland being locked down was not picked up early enough.
There were examples of confusing messaging and poor co-ordination. Testing rates were low.
Oddly, the Ministry of Health would not participate in the cross-government group set up to manage the pandemic and didn’t properly share information with ministers or other ministries. . .
Mistakes at the start could have been excused when there was no rule book to follow. But continued mistakes and failure to learn from them, and from overseas, are inexcusable.
2021 dawned with hope: it was to be the year of the vaccine and a travel bubble opened with Australia.
Then Delta arrived. And again, we were not ready.
Officials began talking about preparations in July, but their programme of work wasn’t due to be finished by mid-September.
It was too late. The day after they briefed Minister Chris Hipkins on the plan, the variant crashed through our border defences.
There was no excuse for the complacency. The strain was first discovered in October 2020 in India. New Zealand had already had two brushes, in April and in June, when an outbreak was miraculously avoided after an Australian traveller toured Wellington tourist spots.
We have dodged so many bullets that luck has played a far bigger part in keeping Covid-19 at bay than good management and preparedness.
Epidemiologist David Skegg, the head of the Government’s Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group, had urged the Government to start preparing.
But just as it had been with the delivery of vaccinations, the Government was on its own timeline. It was always going to be hard to inoculate enough people before Delta arrived, but once again we started the race from behind.
By international standards the vaccine roll-out was staggeringly slow, only ramping up in the last quarter of the year. The Government was slow to start negotiating for, purchasing and approving doses. It initially opted for just the Pfizer jab, which limited supplies.
What is perhaps most unforgivable is the initial failure to engage with and fund Māori health providers. As a result of the ‘one-size fits all’ approach Māori were left behind. . .
Now because the initial vaccination rollout was late and slow, too many of us are facing the Omicron rollout without boosters which are deemed necessary for widespread protection.
Vaccinating children aged 5-12, which is also recommended, has only just begun.
And government obstinacy in sticking only to PCR tests has been relaxed only now as global supplies of Rapid Antigen Tests are in very short supply.
Once again, our defences are unprepared.
A deeply worrying classified report, leaked to Māori TV last week, reveals just how ill-equipped the health system is.
Intensive care beds are ‘limited’ across district health boards, with 36 per cent, or 108 ICU beds, available with the imminent threat of Omicron seeping through the border. Shamefully, there is no ICU capacity in either Hawke’s Bay or the West Coast. . .
Yale University’s Anne Wyllie says she is “terrified” about how unprepared her home country is, saying we urgently need to ramp up saliva testing of border workers.
A study found nasal swabs weren’t as effective at detecting Omicron which makes the need for widespread availability of saliva tests even greater.
Government advisers also fear panic buying of food, protective masks and medication.
We are vulnerable to the supply chain problems that Omicron has caused in other countries. “The big sick” will put a significant chunk of the workforce into isolation. On top of this, New Zealand has an existing truck driver shortage.
Panic buying was evident in Oamaru late yesterday morning when I popped into the supermarket.
The carpark was full, all baskets and almost all trolleys were in use and most were stacked unusually high and some shelves were empty.
The pool of migrant workers that could have picked up the slack has been reduced to a dribble, with ministers demonstrating a dogmatic inflexibility.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson says the Government is working hard, and closely with business leaders on the issue.
However, the planning is not fast or detailed enough for the business community. Their concerns are dismissed by Labour’s supporters as whinging, but we’ll all be complaining when the rubbish piles up, the supermarket shelves are bare, and we can’t replace basic household items.
The response is geared towards keeping Omicron out for as long as possible, and slowing down transmission when it does arrive. Actually coping when it inevitably tears through the community seems to be an afterthought.
It is unfathomable that is where we find ourselves as we enter the pandemic’s third year.
The only thing we can now be prepared for are more lockdowns and a prolonged closure of the border.
An even more prolonged closure of the border? The Prime Minister in exhorting us to be kind is being anything but kind to people stuck overseas.
In her speech yesterday she exhorted us all to play our parts as part of the team, making no mention of and giving no comfort to those million or so in the team who can’t come home.
The latest of those struggling to get a humane response is a family needing an urgent exemption to travel home:
Abigail Peden lies on a couch in Papua New Guinea moaning with pain as her father tries hard to keep it together.
But all Dan Peden has been able to do is wait and watch his 9-year-old daughter suffer for almost four days and hope she will be treated before the shattered bones around her elbow, caused by a fall, create a lifelong injury.
The Peden family, originally from Rotorua, are in Papua New Guinea as missionaries. Unable to get the surgery Abigail requires in the lesser developed Pacific nation, they desperately applied for an emergency managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) exemption to fly her home to New Zealand, and are now waiting for a decision to be made.
A doctor’s report seen by Stuff from the New Tribes Medical Centre in Goroka states Abigail’s young age means her condition is urgent, and she will need a paediatric orthopaedic surgeon in New Zealand to operate. . .
An exemption for a case like this should be made in seconds.
That the family had to wait – and at time of writing are still waiting – for an exemption is evidence of a system that is inexcusably inflexible and inhumane.
It is another sign of the government’s lack of preparedness that has been exacerbated by its control freakery.
It not having a sufficient supply of RATs is bad enough, passing a law to prevent individuals and businesses from importing them compounds the error and that must change.
The Government’s lack of preparation for Omicron has unnecessarily put New Zealand in a worse position than we needed to be, National Leader Christopher Luxon says.
“Rather than spending the last month urgently boosting as many people as possible, rolling out vaccinations for 5–11 year olds and buying stocks of rapid tests, the Government went into ‘go slow’ mode over summer.
“For much of 2021, New Zealand had the slowest vaccine rollout in the developed world. Now Omicron is here, and we are the fourth slowest in the developed world for boosters.
“This is a stunning indictment on the Government’s lack of planning and lack of urgency.
“The Government still seems stuck in a Delta mind-set. Contact tracing under Omicron will be overwhelmed within days. So will our traditional nasal PCR tests, yet the Government simply hasn’t got ready for rapid testing.
“Until recently, rapid antigen tests were illegal and they are still extremely hard to come by now. New Zealand companies are waiting weeks for permission to import them while in other countries like Australia, you can walk into the supermarket and buy one off the shelf.
“Once again, there was no mention of saliva testing. The evidence suggests saliva testing detects Omicron earlier than nasal testing does, but the Government continues to be locked in a nasty spat with Rako Science and therefore they are still not utilising all available testing resource in the country.
“There are urgent steps we need to take.
“We need to protect the vulnerable. We should inundate rest homes, retirement villages and at-risk communities with boosters.
“And we need to get defences and mitigations in place. We should vastly increase the availability of rapid tests, urgently upgrade ICU capacity, and ensure we have stocks of the treatments we need.
“The Government can’t afford to rest on their laurels any longer; they must implement a proper plan for Omicron and deliver on it.”
The government is lamentably lacking in MPs with experience outside parliament and the public service. If any of them have any experience of the Guide and Scout movements they have forgotten its motto – be prepared.