Too little, too late

21/01/2022

First the good news:

Rapid antigen testing will be available more widely in New Zealand, and will be used as part of the Government’s Omicron response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Thursday.

Ardern said there are currently 4.6 million rapid antigen tests (RATs) in New Zealand, and there were “10s of millions on order”. . .

But the bad news is that on order could be too late.

National leader Christopher Luxon said the revelation that there were 4.6 million rapid tests in the country equalled “less than one per person”, and deemed the rollout “appallingly slow”.

“New Zealand has been slow on boosters and slow on vaccines for 5–11-year-olds and now we’re being appallingly slow on rapid tests,” he said.

“To make matters worse, the Prime Minister still can’t outline how they will be used, when they will be available, and what isolation rules will be in place. She even thinks our current contact tracing system will work against Omicron.” . . 

She also thinks tests 48 hours before people board flights to New Zealand is good enough, a point Sir Ian Taylor disputes:

. . . Let’s start with the “unprecedented number of Omicron cases” that have caused the latest “change in plans”.

All of those cases have had to come across our border. To get here, just like Delta before it, Omicron had to hitch a ride with a traveller on a plane or a boat.

One of the reasons it has managed to make that journey to the extent it has, is because we had a testing regime that only required a traveller to test negative 72 hours before boarding a flight. That has subsequently been reduced to 48 hours, but that is still two days to catch the most infectious variant of Covid we have seen to date.

In the “151 Off the Bench” self-isolation programme that I undertook last year with the support of the Business Cross-Sector Border Group, we trialled an alternative to MIQ, which we called Self-Managed Isolation. Focused initially on business travel, this was a system that we believed could be expanded quickly to start bringing our fellow stranded Kiwis home as well; a system that could remain in place no matter what Covid threw at us.

For the 151 Trial, I took my PCR test at LA Airport, before boarding, where I could choose to get my result one hour, three hours or five hours after taking the test. I chose five hours.

Which raises the question: how many of the 300, highly infectious, Omicron cases currently in MIQ would have been picked up in a five-hour window, rather than the current 48 hours?

Perhaps that’s a model Professor Shaun Hendy and his team might test for us.
How different might our situation be now if the Ministry of Health had taken up an offer made in July last year to trial an FDA-approved, PCR equivalent test that has subsequently been approved for official use by countries such as Canada, Israel, Taiwan, the US and Singapore?

The test in question delivers a result in 30 minutes. It costs less than the current approved nasopharyngeal PCR test and independent testing has found that it has “the same diagnostic accuracy as a PCR test,” making it perfect for pre-flight testing, which is what Air Canada uses it for. How many Covid cases might have been detected had we implemented a system that delivered results a matter of hours before boarding, instead of days?

We can’t change the decision made a year and a half ago by the MOH to decline the offer to trial this test, but we can learn from it. Over the Christmas break, the company that made the original offer has confirmed that it still stands. The owner of the company has been coming to New Zealand for 20 years and his connection to this part of the world has meant that New Zealand remains a priority and he is prepared to do whatever is needed to accelerate the trial that he originally offered. . . 

Why wasn’t the trial done last year and why hasn’t the offer to accelerate the trial now been taken up?

There’s been weeks to watch and learn from overseas experience which has pointed very clearly to the need for rapid testing once Omicron takes off and the need to ensure there was no shortage of stock.

But once again the government hasn’t learned and is doing too little, too late.


Black Heels and Tractor Wheels – Ele Ludemann

20/01/2022

Black Heels and Tractor Wheels Podcasts are a Rural Women NZ initiative in which they share stories from a range of women around New Zealand.

And yes, this week’s episode is about me.

RWNZ’s intro says:

Ele Ludemann’s journey has been a challenging one . . .

Ele speaks of the importance of naming and taming feelings as part of the grief cycle, strategies for everyone to help deal with grief, and shares her interesting farming journey with her husband Grant, from the “ag sag” of the eighties through to today.

Ele has experienced great tragedy within her life so far, and has graciously and candidly shared her story with our listeners today

I’ve been educated, entertained and inspired by listening to these podcasts on my daily walks and feel both humble and privileged to be included in the series.

You can catch up on all the podcasts at Rural Women NZ Black Heels and Tractor Wheels. A new interview is posted every Wednesday.


This isn’t normal

20/01/2022

Does anyone else remember the government telling us that we had to get vaccinated so we could enjoy a normal summer and that when 90% of those eligible were vaccinated we would be able to enjoy a normal summer?

If my recall is correct, this was yet another promise from this government on which they failed to deliver.

Northland is still marooned in red and the rest of us are stuck in orange with requirements and restrictions which are anything but normal.

We’re also facing increasingly dire warnings about the impact of the Omicron variant, and last night learned of a secret government report stoking fears of what might happen:

The Government is bracing itself for an Omicron outbreak that will swamp the country’s health system and elude the precautionary measures which have prevented coronavirus transmission so far, according to a document leaked to Māori Television.

The classified Across Government Situation Report reveals advisers’ fears of panic buying of food, protective masks and medication should Omicron eventually spread and says home-made face coverings are “unlikely to be effective”.

“Facial coverings made from cloth materials are not sufficient in preventing or reducing infection of Omicron,” the document prepared for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet says. . . 

In light of that, we ought to have good access to N95 or P2 masks but they are very, very scarce..

I couldn’t find any in Oamaru on Tuesday. I did find KN95 masks in a pharmacy but they are self-certified and therefore not always as effective as they say they are and sales were restricted to one pack of 5 per customer.

I was able to buy some P2 masks online tonight but the outlet from which I ordered them is now saying they’re sold out and won’t have more in stock until the end of March.

Lanaco still has P2 masks in stock and has a video which discusses their effectiveness.

The government has been telling us how good they’ve been at protecting us, but the report says that could make us more vulnerable:

The report says given many haven’t been exposed to previous waves of Covid-19 like Delta, New Zealand could be harder hit than the US and Europe, which are now battling their own Omicron outbreaks.

“Most will not have any protective immunity benefits that may arise from prior infection,” it says. . . 

We do have a high vaccination rate and Lindsay Mitchell shows the statistics on that are clear:

Yes, the fully-vaccinated can still end up in hospital. In fact there are more vaccinated than unvaccinated people in hospital.  But the important numbers are shown in the rates.

The unvaccinated are 6.93 times more likely to be hospitalised and 17.5 times more likely to be admitted to ICU.

That is only part of the story:

Of course it doesn’t stop there. Efficacy against illness severity is only one aspect. Next vaccine safety, vaccine effect on virus transmissibility, vaccine efficacy versus other treatments, etc etc. need consideration. . . 

We don’t know the long term effects of vaccines but I have heard enough from friends overseas who have either had the disease or have seen what it can do to people they know, and from health professionals I trust to decide the short term risk from Covid-19 is the greater one.

But my trust doesn’t extend to the government and its competence.

That leaves me with with several questions. Chief among them are why, isn’t the government better prepared for Omicron when it has seen what’s happened overseas; why has it ignored reports it has commissioned that exhort it to be better prepared and why does it not already have a plan for dealing with the inevitable community transmission?

Jason Walls says we need a plan now:

. . . What we need is a plan. What we’ve got so far is anything but. 

When asked on Monday when a plan would be unveiled, Jacinda Ardern told reporters: “In the coming weeks”. 

MIQ officials should be commended for keeping Omicron at bay for so long. But even the most optimistic in Ardern’s Cabinet can’t seriously expect the virus to remain caged for “weeks”. 

It’s critical Kiwis know the plan before the first community case is discovered.   

Ardern and her Covid Minister, Chris Hipkins, have both said a new community outbreak would be dealt with under the traffic light system and further lockdowns have been ruled out.   

But beyond that – and some vague comments about wider mask usage – how the Government plans to combat the virus’ inevitable spread remains a question mark. 

This is despite Omicron making global headlines months ago, and first arriving in MIQ in mid-December.   

“In the coming weeks” is simply not good enough – we need a plan now, not when the next outbreak has already started.   . . 

This incompetence is beginning to look like normal for the government and that’s why normal won’t be normal for the rest of us for a lot longer than the rest of summer.


Restructuring system hurts services

18/01/2022

Epidemiologists and politicians are telling us it’s when, not if, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 will spread through New Zealand.

Although some are saying that Omicron is more contagious but less serious than other variants, there are still serious concerns that health services will be over run.

The government has been telling us from before the first lockdown nearly two years ago, that the rationale for lockdowns and other restrictions on what we can do and how we can do it has been to ensure that health services aren’t put under too much pressure.

Given that, it ought to have been working very hard to ensure that health services and the professionals that provide them had everything they needed to cope with a surge in patients.

Instead, they’ve poured millions of dollars into restructuring the sector:

In 2018 the DHBs settled on a collective agreement for nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants with the complete implementation of a ‘Care Capacity Demand Management’ programme – a set of tools to ensure there are enough staff on shift.

. . . National’s Health spokesperson Shane Reti received confirmation from a written Parliamentary question that only one DHB had met the target by the deadline six months ago.

“Leading up to coronavirus there was very slow progress.

“This was specifically to reduce some of the risks around nursing staff being overworked in DHBs,” he said.

Just Northland DHB has 100 percent implemented Care Capacity Demand Management by the cut off – five were close at more than 90 percent.

The two worst DHBs were Canterbury at 49 percent and Waikato at just 34 percent.

In the response, the health minister’s office stated Canterbury and Waikato were late adopters of the CCDM programme.

The Waikato DHB’s roll-out was then further delayed by the cyber attack last year.

Reti said now is not the time for expensive reforms of the health sector.

“When the sector is already struggling for workforce, struggling to keep up with demand, even before whatever Omicron may bring towards us, this is a terrible time to be restructuring the sector,” he said. . . 

Maternity is one of the areas under pressure, even without Covid-19:

The temporary closure of Queen Mary maternity services at Dunedin Hospital is further evidence of Andrew Little being prepared to sacrifice health services over bureaucracy for his precious health system restructuring, says National’s Health Spokesperson Dr Shane Reti.

“The Minister needs to explain ministerial answers showing $60M of maternity action plan funding being put aside for health system restructuring.

“That $60M was important for core maternity services not health system restructuring and would go a long way to address concerns around midwifery capacity and conditions.

“It’s no wonder the health system is burnt out after 5 years of a Labour Government yet some of this could have been recently avoided if the $500M and funding for 20 Ernst Young consultants in Wellington to empire build a restructured health system had instead been used to build ICU capacity and increase the health workforce.

Unfortunately Andrew Little is trying to use a Covid crisis to justify health restructuring over health services, form over function, and property over people. This has all been cruelly exposed at Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Dunedin and midwifery at large who now join 100,000 delayed procedures and 30,000 people waiting more than 4 months to see a specialist as testament to Labour’s failing health system restructuring.”

DHBs are far from perfect but spending millions of dollars on creating a centralised system with a separate Maori organisation with veto powers over the whole organisation would be the wrong answer at the best of times.

Doing it during a pandemic when everyone involved ought to be concentrating on core services will solve none of the existing problems and create new ones.

 

 


Omicrony variant

14/01/2022

How not to shut down a story:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and fiance Clarke Gayford are refusing to answer further questions about the extent to which Gayford tried to get Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) for his friends.

On Wednesday the Herald reported a pharmacist alleging Gayford had tried to help friends get an RAT via a phone call and being “very unimpressed” when he was told that the health guidance was for a PCR test, rather than an RAT.

The friends were suspected close contacts of a Covid-19 case and current Ministry of Health guidelines say close contacts should get a nasal PCR test, not a rapid test.

The country was facing its first community case of the Omicron variant at the time.

In a Facebook post, the pharmacist alleged Gayford had said the Ministry of Health policy had changed and allowed close contacts to get an RAT.

Gayford admitted a friend had put him on speakerphone while in a pharmacy to discuss RATs, but did not give his version of the phone call. He apologised for any “confusion”.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s office refused to answer further questions about the extent to which this was a one-off occurrence, and whether it was appropriate for him to try to get the test.

Is a woman responsible for her fiancée’s actions?

No.

But when the woman is the Prime Minister the questions are legitimate and deserve an answer.

When other media approached the Prime Minister’s office about the story, the office refused to comment, but referred reporters to a statement issued by Gayford’s managers.

But on Thursday morning, Gayford’s managers were not issuing his statement – already published by the Herald – to other media, impeding their ability to cover the story.

In a news story, TVNZ’s 1News said it “approached Gayford’s management team for a response,” after being directed there by the Prime Minister’s office. However, Gayford’s management “refused to comment”.

Only in the afternoon were other media able to obtain the statement – after some had raised the issue with the Prime Minister’s office. Gayford’s management blamed the delay on holidays and staff needing to talk to senior management before sending the statement. 

Gayford’s management refused to answer further questions about the incident. 

How to make a bad story worse – try to keep it quiet, especially when there are so many questions that have yet to be answered.

Questions like:

Why would musicians think calling their mate who just happens to be engaged to the Prime Minister would help him get an RAT?

Why would the mate then try to persuade the pharmacist to give them the test?

This is a particularly nasty case of the Omicrony variant.

Apropos of the Omicrony variant, even if the musician in the pharmacy wasn’t from overseas, how do others in the music industry manage to get to the front of the MIQueue?

How can these people take precedence over New Zealanders desperate to get home and essential workers in sectors including health, agriculture and education which are desperate for staff?

And apropos of those oblivious to the plight of the desperate would-be returnees is the case of Labour list MP Marja Lubeck who spent summer in the Netherlands:

The list MP, who contests Auckland’s Kaipara ki Mahurangi electorate, was born in the Netherlands and later moved to New Zealand.

Lubeck’s trip is possible thanks to her securing an MIQ spot, allowing her to isolate upon her return to New Zealand. But the MIQ system is becoming increasingly controversial; regular releases of MIQ places are almost always oversubscribed, meaning many New Zealanders are barred from returning home. . . 

There is no question that she got that spot by anything other than luck but that is no comfort for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who are stuck overseas and in far, far greater need of getting to the front of the MIQueue but who have had no luck in the MIQ lottery.

That she could think it was fine to compete against those people for one of the scarce spots shows a serious error of judgment.

Compounding that, what does it say about her judgment that she left the country in spite of the government of which she is a part having a travel advisory that very clearly tells New Zealanders to stay home:

Do not travel overseas at this time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, associated health risks and widespread travel restrictions. This do not travel advisory (level 4 of 4) applies to all destinations except the Cook Islands….Read more . . 

The musician made an error of judgement, Clarke Gayford made a bigger one and Marja Lubeck made two, all of which reflects badly on them and both Gayford and the PM compounded the damage by refusing to answer questions.

Could it be that compromised judgement is one of the symptoms of the Omicrony variant?


Who’s essential?

12/01/2022

A rest home has empty beds because it can’t find enough staff.

Health professionals are over-stretched because hospitals are under-staffed.

Fruit and vegetables are going unharvested because market gardeners and orchardists can’t find enough workers.

There’s a nationwide shortage of people in a wide variety of occupations including agricultural contractors, auditors, dairy farm workers, midwives and vets.

There are New Zealanders overseas who are qualified for these jobs who want to get home but can’t. There are others with visas who could fill some of the vacancies but they are stuck in the MIQueue too.

Yet a DJ managed to get an MIQ spot three times last year and scores of  other DJs came into the country in 2021.

How do local DJs who have lost work opportunities feel about that?

How do all the 10s of thousands of New Zealanders who are desperate to come home and can’t get a spot in the MIQ lottery feel about that?

And what does it say about a government that considers DJs essential when so many other really essential workers are stuck overseas?

If they asked voters, who’s essential there would be a very long list before anyone mentioned DJs.


Not actively working

10/01/2022

MIQ failures are creating mayhem and distress for families:

The Government has cruelly chosen not to fix known problems in the Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) online booking system that are keeping families from reuniting says National’s Spokesperson for Immigration, Erica Stanford.

“Resident 2021 visa holders and families of essential workers like our nurses and teachers who hold valid visas have been unable to book MIQ spots because the system can’t verify them.

“Resident visa holders were told they would be free to travel in and out of New Zealand like all other residents, subject to booking MIQ. However, a glitch in the system has locked them out of booking MIQ spaces and many who left temporarily are unable to even try to return home.

“The Government are actively are choosing not to fix this problem, telling those trapped offshore ‘although we are aware of the problem we are not actively working on fixing it’.

Only government employees, secure in their jobs, would treat people like this.

“Similarly, another MIQ glitch that has taken too long to fix saw essential workers seeking to bring their families to join them unable from being able to apply for spots in this weeks’ MIQ room release.

“Our essential workers have done everything the Government has asked. They’ve patiently waited for months to reunite with their families. Now the Government is telling them to continue supporting our COVID-19 response while telling them they’ll have to wait even longer to see their families.

Who was it criticised Australia for its treatment of illegal immigrants? Ah yes, it was our Prime Minister whose government is subjecting essential workers, here legally, to inhumane separation from their families.

“The Government’s failure to fix these issues with urgency is cruel and appalling – and is sending a message to migrants that they don’t care about them.

“This is a classic case of ‘computer says no’. New Zealand residents are being told they are not able to enter the country at all until the borders open – just because of a computer glitch the Government refuses to fix.

“I’m calling on Chris Hipkins to act with urgency to fix these issues and ensure New Zealand residents can return home and essential workers can be reunited with their families. We simply cannot afford to have more essential workers leave New Zealand because their families can’t get here.”

We are desperately short of essential workers in every sector.

The government, and its employees, should be doing absolutely everything possible to keep those already in the country here and enable the ones offshore to get in.

The MIQueue failures are causing mayhem and distress for citizens, residents and their families, keeping out people who want to come in and preventing those here from leaving for fear they won’t be able to return.

The increasingly dire warnings about the imminent arrival of the Omicron variant are a very strong signal nothing will be done to alleviate the problems soon even if there was a much better response than although we are aware of the problem we are not actively working on fixing it.

Not actively working – that could apply to the whole government.


How would you feel?

07/01/2022

The first MIQueue lottery took place yesterday.

How would you feel if you were one of the people who didn’t get an MIQ spot?

How would you feel if you got one then couldn’t get a flight that suited and had to forgo the MIQ room?

How would you feel if you were an employer whose essential worker missed out in the MIQueue lottery?

This is an inhumane and unfair system.

The government can’t keep keeping citizens and permanent residents out and forcing others to stay here for fear they won’t be able to return.

There are much better ways to keep Covid-19 out while allowing people who need, or even want, to come in to do so.


Failing to prepare . .

05/01/2022

When Covid-19 first struck and the government was requiring incoming travellers to self-isolate they relied on trust.

It often didn’t work.

The experience with the DJ who brought Omicron across the border shows they haven’t learned from that.

Why couldn’t they follow examples from overseas?

In Japan for example, someone I know moved there, had to self-isolate and for two weeks received video calls at random times to ensure she was in the apartment where she was supposed to be.

Friends in the USA who had travelled overseas had to self-isolate on their return and had to wear electronic monitoring devices while they did it.

That something similar to one or other of these systems isn’t available here is yet another example of the government’s failure to prepare.

Dare we hope they are preparing for community transmission of Omicron and the pressure that will put on testing services?

The Medical Laboratory Science Institute says the government needs to rethink who and how it tests for Covid-19, or it risks overrunning the country’s labs.

President Terry Taylor said the measures to combat Covid-19 spread were designed to prevent frontline hospital services from being overrun.

However, he said international examples show diagnostic services could also be swamped. . . 

One solution to that is access to rapid testing:

The Government must get ready for the transmission of omicron in the community by ensuring we have enough supply of rapid tests in New Zealand and making them available to vaccinated and unvaccinated people through pharmacies and supermarkets, says National’s COVID-19 Response Spokesperson Chris Bishop.

“Rapid antigen tests are widely available for the public to buy and use overseas, allowing in-home testing with results available in as little as 15 minutes. But public use of these tests are effectively banned in New Zealand – that needs to change.

“The Government accepts that omicron is likely to make its way into the community at some point. The evidence from overseas is that omicron spreads incredibly quickly – and it is likely that it will very quickly overwhelm our standard PCR testing and contract tracing system, which struggled to keep up even with delta.

“During the delta outbreak in August some people queued for up to 12 hours for nasal PCR tests, and many tests still take longer than 48 hours to be returned.

I was celebrant at a funeral last week. The dead woman’s only grandson wasn’t able to be with the family when I met them because he had a sore throat, wasn’t able to have a rapid test because he was vaccinated and had to wait for a PCR test result, even though there was a risk it might not be through in time for him to attend the funeral.

This restriction on RATs is an unacceptable level of control freakery that must be relaxed before there is widespread community transmission of omicron.

“Quick and effective identification of people with COVID will be vital when omicron hits New Zealand and this means New Zealanders need ready access to rapid antigen tests in a wide variety of settings including pharmacies and supermarkets.

“Rapid antigen tests are still effectively banned in New Zealand and the government has shown a real reluctance to use them. As the government’s own expert Professor Murdoch noted, we have been too slow to adopt tools like saliva and rapid tests.

Banning rapid tests when elimination was the goal at least made some sense. Banning them under a suppression strategy and with omicron on our doorstep makes no sense.

“Widespread availability of rapid COVID tests must be part of the toolkit alongside nasal and saliva based PCR tests. Under omicron, testing will be more important than ever.”

“We mustn’t get into a situation like Australia, where there are reports of shortages of rapid tests in various places.

“It appears we dodged a bullet a few days ago with DJ Dimension but, like delta, omicron will be back. The Government must use this time to get ready – and make sure we have a good stock of rapid tests in New Zealand and it needs to liberalise the rules around their use.”

The government was too busy congratulating itself to learn from overseas experience with Delta.

It must learn from what’s happening in Australia with pressure on testing and problems with accessing RATs.

Failing to prepare for this will be preparing for failure – again.


Instead of nurses . . .

29/12/2021

The Covid-response fund was supposed to fund the Covid response.

That could well have included paying more nurses – and more pay for nurses.

Instead, $1,323,000 was spent on performing arts.


God’s tech support

28/12/2021

No Plan B

23/12/2021

The Government had no alternative plan if its goal to eliminate Covid-19 failed:

The Government never produced a strategy for handling Covid-19 in New Zealand if it failed to eliminate an outbreak, Newsroom can reveal.

In response to an Official Information Act request from Newsroom, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said his office held no information relating to a suppression strategy for Covid-19 or to any other strategy that wasn’t an elimination strategy. The request sought documents relating to other Covid-19 response strategies between July 2, 2020, when Hipkins became Minister of Health, and September 20, 2021, when Auckland moved down to Level 3 during the Delta outbreak.

“After an extensive search through this office’s records, I can confirm that there was no information provided to my office relating to any strategy that was not an elimination strategy during the period specified in your request,” Hipkins wrote.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker said he was surprised to learn that the Government hadn’t developed a backup plan.

“I would think it would have been sensible to have a range of alternative scenarios and plan accordingly,” he told Newsroom.

“Once you had the Delta variant, it showed that viral evolution was going to continue and could result in big changes in the behaviour of the organism. All of the literature said this virus was going to be changing and I would have thought that, at the very least, you would want to have a plan after seeing what Delta was capable of.”

National Party Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop said the Government put all its eggs in one basket by planning only for elimination.

“The Government just bet the house on elimination and assumed it would work. Even after Delta arrived in MIQ in April and into the community in August, the Government just assumed it would work,” he said.

“They really should have been working on backup plans. By the time Delta arrived in New Zealand and into the community, it had already spread to basically every other country.” . . 

We’ve all been locked down – Auckland numerous times; businesses have failed, jobs have been lost, tens of thousands of citizens and residents have been locked out of the country and who knows how many others have been to afraid to go overseas for fear they wouldn’t be able to return?

Few people have died of, or even with, Covid-19 but how many people’s lives have been compromised or lost because diagnosis and treatment of other conditions were delayed? How many children will, or are already failing, to reach their potential because they haven’t been able to go to school? How many relationships have failed because partners have been kept apart, or forced to have too much time together?

The government’s failure to plan for the failure of its elimination goal has failed us all, at a very high cost to us all.


From fear to freedom

22/12/2021

The government has done a very good job of instilling fear of Covid-19 in us.

It was an effective way of ensuring most of us complied with edicts about lockdowns, testing and vaccination.

The end of the Auckland border and arrival of the omicron variant with the knowledge that one, or both, will spread in the community sooner or later has stoked the fear.

Because of that yesterday’s announcement of delays to loosening of border restrictions wasn’t a surprise and was generally accepted as necessary.

But we can’t keep doing this.

Children are split from parents; spouses and partners are being kept apart; people whose jobs have finished are stranded overseas, some without funds or homes; others can’t get home to visit the ill or to attend funerals, weddings and other celebrations; people who need to travel for work or to visit families and friends can’t  unless they accept they might not be able to return.

A few months of this in the early stages of the pandemic might have been understandable but the failure to have no better plan to allow these Grounded Kiwis back to their homeland, and those here to travel and return, than the MIQueue lottery is not.

It is inhumane.

Meanwhile, those of us already at home, are looking ahead to a summer with a lot less freedom than we had 12 months ago.

This year was supposed to be better than last year. It wasn’t and there’s little confidence that much, if anything, will improve next year.

If we’re looking to the government we’ll continue to be fearful. If we want freedom from that fear, it’s up to us.

Those of us who accept the risk from the vaccine is less than the risk of Covid, can now get a booster sooner.

All of us can take what precautions we feel are necessary to reduce the risk of catching the disease.

Then we can get on with our lives, not as free as we’d like to be but at least free from fear.


Control freakery costs

21/12/2021

Would it be safer to be with someone who may or may not be vaccinated but had had a negative rapid antigen test a few minutes ago, or someone untested but vaccinated?

Whatever the answer to that is, wouldn’t we all, vaccinated or not, be able to be freer if rapid antigen tests were freely available?

Sir Ian Taylor says a reliable rapid test was offered to our government last year (4:34 on the audio):

. . . June last year over 12 months ago, an American company, a guy who comes to New Zealand every year for 20 years, and owns a big medical company and he offered to trial a test in New Zealand. 

One of the biggest problems we’ve got is the nasopharyngeal test which means that anyone coming to New Zealand has to  test 72 hours, that’s three days. During Omicron, the most infectious disease version we’ve got, you’re going to catch it in three days. 

This test that he offered to trial in New Zealand more than a year ago, picks up a negative test in less than 11 minutes. It’s been approved by the FDA, the EDA, it’s being used in Israel, the US, Canada, Singapore, all of those places, and he didn’t even get a reply. . . 

Why don’t we have this test or one of the similar ones that are freely available in other countries?

“Everywhere you turn it’s the Ministry of Health that seems to block any discussion, and it is interesting that there are a number of business people I have talked to that have stepped up in support, there are a number of people working with government who have stepped up in support, but all of them feel threatened to speak out. Now that’s not a democracy.” 

The government, and Ministry, have been pigheadedly reluctant to listen to, let alone accept, advice from outside and are displaying a completely unacceptable level of control freakery over rapid antigen testing.

I am double vaccinated and will get a booster as soon as I can.

That makes me less likely to get Covid-19, less likely to spread it and less likely to become seriously ill if I do.

But it doesn’t mean I can’t get it and spread it.

At the moment to be sure I didn’t have the disease, I’d have to have a nasopharyngeal test the results of which could take 72 hours or longer to get back to me because only the unvaccinated who need to travel can get rapid antigen tests, and they have to go to a pharmacy to get them.

Even if the test was negative, I could have become infected after the test was taken, especially with the speed at which Omicron spreads.

What’s happening overseas where Omicron is in the community points to a very rapid spread – far too rapid to rely on the nasopharyngeal tests which take far too long to process and tie up far too much time in laboratories.

So far the new variant has been stopped at the border. It would be a miracle if it stays there.

If, and it’s mostly likely when, it gets through to the community, freely available tests which give results in minutes rather than days could identify those infected sooner and significantly slow down the spread.

But the control freakery from the government and ministry have prevented us from having that option. The cost of that will include a faster and wider spread of the disease, threats to the health system, and a continuation of restrictions on our freedom.


Case for Royal Commission

20/12/2021

Rachel Smalley joins the calls for a Royal Commission into the Covid response:

. . . And now, as we head into Christmas, lurching around in a traffic light system, with police checkpoints and mandated vaccinations for many, a Royal Commission of Inquiry suddenly feels fiercely important.

There is so much we don’t understand, and we need to.

Central to it all is the rationale that guided the government’s decision-making on the health, fiscal, and economic response to Covid. What did it nail, and where did it fail? 

There are a lot more questions that need to be answered.

All along, the government has said it has been guided by the science, but was that the only yardstick? And if so, should it have been? If science guided the health response, whose modelling did we rely on and why?

Did the government, at any point, stress-test its response? Were there moments of evaluation? Was it ever retrospective? Did Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s strategists ever consider the possibility of another way? Or was it always an elimination strategy – until it wasn’t?

What impact did the lockdowns have on our health system? How many missed surgery? How many cancer diagnoses or heart procedures were delayed, and at what human cost? Was the impact on mental health considered or measured? Was there a correlation between lockdowns and our suicide rate? Was any attempt made to measure this? Is our health system capable of collating data? Did we know what happened to domestic violence rates? Did intimate partner deaths increase?

Most of us have toed the line. We stayed away from those we loved. We kept our distance. We didn’t see or hug our parents. They didn’t see or hold their grandchildren.

It was for our own good, we were told, but was it? What impact did it have on marriages, mental wellbeing, and our teenagers and children?

In a global pandemic, how should a government communicate with the public? Was fear a by-product of its communications strategy, or was it central to it? Fear, communicated to us daily, became a form of control. The concept of wanting to touch or hug someone outside of our bubble became sinful. At times, it felt illegal to be human. In the upper North Island, it still does.

In Auckland, elderly people in rest homes were left in their rooms all day, every day, for weeks. Food was passed through the door. Sometimes, they could take a short daily walk, but it was alone. No touch, no conversation, no compassion for months. Did anyone, for a moment, imagine the loneliness of that existence for someone in the winter years of their life?

And more…

Why did the prime minister take months to talk to Pfizer? Why did MBIE manage the procurement of the vaccine and not Pharmac? When did we start preparing for Delta? How did we botch the vaccine rollout? And what is the financial cost of that? If Auckland had accessed the vaccine sooner, the city wouldn’t have spent months in lockdown, costing the country billions of dollars in debt.

MIQ. Why didn’t we prioritise spaces for much-needed essential workers? How did Delta escape from the Stamford Plaza? One breach of MIQ has cost our economy billions of dollars. Why couldn’t we find the source?

Should we have prioritised returning New Zealanders, and not left them electronically queuing with thousands of people for a space in MIQ? How many skilled immigrants, separated from their families, left New Zealand because Immigration NZ failed to process their visas? And why couldn’t they process those visas?

Why weren’t Māori and Pasifika, our most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities, prioritised early in the vaccine rollout? Pasifika is one of our youngest populations, and 70% of Māori are below the age of 40. Delta was endemic before most were even eligible for the vaccine.

How much money have we borrowed? Was the wage subsidy and business support payment the best allocation of capital? Was the strategy fit for purpose? Did it keep zombie companies alive? And kill hospitality?

Other questions include:

Why weren’t we better prepared for a pandemic?

Why weren’t we better prepared for Delta?

Why wasn’t there enough PPE for all frontline workers who needed it; why wasn’t there enough flu vaccines last year and why did the PM and DG of Health keep saying there was enough when there wasn’t?

Why did the government not implement the recommendations of the reports it commissioned?

Why aren’t self-testing kits freely available here as they are in other countries?

Why didn’t we learn from other countries’ experiences?

Why hasn’t the government built special purpose MIQ facilities?

Why was preparation for outbreaks so poor people were queuing for hours for tests?

Why did the government take so long to listen to pleas from the pork industry to allow butchers to kill pigs when there was a real and urgent animal welfare issue?

Why were there so many inconsistencies over what was an essential business that could operate at level 4 and what wasn’t and therefore couldn’t operate?

Why, before Omicron was detected, couldn’t people who were double vaccinated and tested negative self-isolate, at least in Auckland where people with Covid-19 were self-isolating?

Why didn’t the government accept the advice and help of people like Sir Ian Taylor?

These questions barely scratch the surface. There is, without question, a need to consider our government’s response to the pandemic, and independently.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry would do that. It would delve deeper, compel evidence, call witnesses under oath and, crucially, investigate without political bias.

This won’t be our last rodeo. There will be more global health pandemics. Next time, our strategy needs to go further than ‘Go hard and go early’. In 2022, the government must show its willing to listen and learn – and commit to a Royal Commission of Inquiry.

What divides democracy and dictatorship? Public accountability.

And all of us need answers.

The government has been very good at praising itself, slow to learn from its mistakes and very defensive when criticised.

The best way to get answers to the many questions over its preparedness and response and to ensure both are better next time is a Royal Commission.


More than a little late

17/12/2021

The announcement of more money to increase ICU capacity is welcome but more than a little late:

The Government’s announced ICU spend up is one Christmas too late, National’s spokesperson for Health Dr Shane Reti says.

“By his own admission Andrew Little didn’t build a single new resourced adult ICU bed in Auckland in the 18 months before Delta arrived and the number of new build ICU beds in this announcement, across the whole country is only 31 new beds or roughly 10 per cent.

“This is a paltry figure when he was advised by specialists last year to triple the number of beds. If he hasn’t figured it out already, 355 negative pressure room ward beds are not 355 ICU beds.

The failure to act sooner has come at a very high financial and social cost.

“His failure to prepare ICU beds is one reason why Auckland has been in extended lockdown, why businesses have failed and why 100,000 Kiwis have had their procedures cancelled.

“Many of the announcements today are not actually new builds but “robbing Peter to pay Paul” by converting ward beds, administrative space and elective surgery beds into ICU beds. The hope has to be that these beds will then serve a dual purpose otherwise the lost inpatient beds will eventually add to escalating waiting lists for people to see specialists and have cancelled procedures.

“Andrew Little has said the first ICU beds will be next July which will be too late if Omicron lands in NZ. We need to see a delivery schedule and clear evidence that funding has followed the greatest need.

“When in government, National spent more than $200 million on health infrastructure in every single one of its last 5 years while at the same time successfully balancing service delivery and getting waiting lists down.

“What is also missing in this announcement here is the health workforce. Where is the health workforce to staff these announcements. Delta has been all about ICU and actually ICU nurses have been the rate limiting step however there is no evidence of any planning or funding to address this ongoing problem.

The government has only recently set aside MIQ spaces for ICU nurses but few if any have been used.

“New Zealanders can have little faith that the new announcements will be built on time, on budget and in scope given Treasury’s recent reports for the Ministry of Health showing that under a Labour government the Ministry of Health has gone backwards from a C to a D in Investor Confidence Ratings.

“Late announcements, poor planning, 30,000 people waiting more than 4 months to see a specialist – this is just another fail for Andrew Little and a Labour government that is more interested in health reforms than keeping New Zealanders safe during a pandemic.”

The funding wasn’t just for ICU, it was also for preparing hospital wards for Covid patients – again something that ought to have been done months ago. Instead tens of millions of dollars approved for dealing with the pandemic was misdirected to much less important projects like cameras on fishing boats.

The government has spent almost two years building up the fear of Covid and the risks that could come with its spread but has failed to bolster the health system to offset the risk and ensure that diagnosis and treatment for people with other health conditions wouldn’t be delayed.


Govt not following traffic lights

14/12/2021

The criteria on which each of the three Covid traffic lights is based is clear.

At red:

Action needed to protect
health system – system
facing unsustainable
number of hospitalisations.
Action needed to protect
at-risk populations.

At orange:

Community transmission
with pressure on health
system.
Whole of health system
is focusing resources but
can manage – primary
care, public health, and
hospitals.
Increasing risk to at-risk
populations.

At green:

COVID-19 across New
Zealand, including sporadic
imported cases.
Limited community
transmission.
COVID-19 hospitalisations
are at a manageable level.
Whole of health system is
ready to respond – primary
care, public health, and
hospitals. 

If the government was following the criteria it set most, if not all, the country would be at green but the government has deviated from its own system with several areas of the North Island stuck in red and the rest of us in orange.

I understand the reasoning – the government is worrying that once people are free to travel outside the red zones they’ll take Covid with them.

But if that’s the case, why will Aucklanders who are are red at home being permitted to travel to places that are at orange?:

We are one of, if not, the most vaccinated city in the world, hospitalisation and case numbers are dropping, the boundary is opening and we’ve got armour plating from free, rapid antigen testing, scanning, vaccine passports and social distancing, but still Auckland is left in the red until the end of the year to suffer a summer of pain.

“It does not make sense. It is safe for Aucklanders to leave the city from Wednesday and move from red to orange but unsafe for the city to shift to orange,” says Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett. “We’ve done everything we can yet we’re stuck at a restrictive red light while modellers promote wild extremes of forecasts and count the days of an infection cycle.

“Small businesses, especially those in hospitality, accommodation and tourism, don’t deserve this,” he said. “And while we wait for the lights to change and wonder at the logic, Auckland will become a ghost town. Money and patronage needed to save local businesses, repay debt and recoup losses, will disappear into the regions.”

And why is Northland going to be staying at red when other areas, including the East Coast which also has a low vaccinate rate, move to orange on December 30th?

The government’s use of its own traffic light system doesn’t make sense.

The Government should move Auckland to “Orange” in the traffic light system immediately, rather than waiting another two and a half weeks until 30 December, National Leader Christopher Luxon says.

“The Government is simply not following its own criteria.

“By the Government’s own admission, the “Red” stage should be used when our healthcare system is overwhelmed and we’re facing unsustainable levels of hospitalisations – neither of which are happening.

“The Prime Minister spent a long time in her press conference outlining how the outbreak is under control. There are just 61 cases in hospital, with only four in ICU. The case numbers are fewer than the modelling suggests. The “R rate” is now below 1. New Zealand is just 48,000 doses shy of 90 per cent of the eligible population being vaccinated. Auckland is one of the most vaccinated places in the world.

“All of these signs indicate Auckland should be in “Orange”, not “Red”, right now.

“The traffic light setting makes a huge difference to the economic viability of small businesses, including hospitality. Many of those businesses will be beyond frustrated at being given a glimpse of further freedoms but having to wait another 17 days, despite being at their peak summer trading period.

“Today was yet another announcement of a future announcement.

“The Government should also drop the idea of continuing to enforce the Auckland border over summer. It simply doesn’t make sense to delay Aucklanders for hours in their cars to check whether they’re vaccinated or have had a recent rapid antigen test. The costs of doing this simply outweigh the marginal benefits of doing so.

“Around 600 police officers will be involved in manning the Auckland border over summer or working in MIQ. Every police officer on the Auckland border is a police officer pulled away from tackling real crime around the country.

“The traffic light framework will only enjoy public confidence and support if the decisions made under it make sense. The Government simply aren’t following their own criteria, which will leave many New Zealanders wondering what the purpose of the criteria even is.”

If the government isn’t following its own rules, how can it expect us to?

The criteria is clear but the government’s interpretation of it is not.

We’re all paying for that with a loss of freedom; some are paying a lot more with a loss of businesses and jobs and the government’s eroding its own social licence by creating chaos and confusion.


Government gift to gangs

13/12/2021

The government’s plan to ban the sale of tobacco to stop anyone aged 14 or younger now being able to purchase tobacco is a gift to gangs.

. . .The Government will gradually increase the age of purchase restrictions every year, meaning eventually there will be an age cohort who won’t be able to legally purchase cigarettes. . . 

The legal age of purchase is now 18.

Very few people start smoking as adults. It would be far better to just increase the purchasing age by a few years, 20 or 21 perhaps, and leave it at that.

It wouldn’t be much harder to police that age limit than sales under the current law are.

Making it illegal for people in the 30s, 40s and older to buy cigarettes would be much harder especially when for example someone aged 50 couldn’t buy cigarettes but someone a day older could; and what would happen to tourists who are addicted? Covid has inflicted enormous damage on tourism, this would be another blow to the industry.

Then there’s the inconsistency of the people who promote legalising, or at least decriminalising,  marijuana because they say prohibition doesn’t work, thinking it would work for tobacco.

There’s already a black market for tobacco and cigarette robberies are far from rare.

The government’s proposal will encourage more thefts and black market sales.

Gangs will take the ban on tobacco sales to anyone aged 14 or younger when the legislation comes into effect as an invitation to add it to their enterprises, almost certainly with the offer or other drugs such as marijuana and meth on the side.

I’ve always hated the smell of cigarette smoke and was delighted when it was no longer legal for tobacco addicts to inflict their smoke on others in enclosed public places like bars and restaurants.

I supported tax increases which have been proven to encourage people to drop the habit, but only up to a point. That point has now been passed and the high price that results is encouraging burglaries and illegal sales.

People can’t smoke inside public spaces, some councils have extended the ban to parks, sportsgrounds and beaches; employers can discriminate against smokers when taking on new staff and the government has made it illegal to smoke in a car with children.

That has made tobacco very expensive and the habit hard to maintain when there are so many restrictions on where people can smoke which has encouraged people to give up smoking.

The decrease in smokers might not be happening fast enough for the government but that’s not an argument for this proposal which will gift gangs another illegal product to sell.


Rural round-up

10/12/2021

Feds backs withdrawal from governments archaic pay agreement laws :

Federated Farmers supports Business New Zealand’s decision to opt out of the government’s plans for it to be a partner in implementing so-called ‘Fair Pay’ agreements.

Federated Farmers has already indicated it will not function as a mediator for the government’s flawed pay negotiation scheme.

It fully supports Business New Zealand’s decision.
“We support them and for the same reasons they outline we will also refuse to be a negotiating partner for agricultural employers.

“We call on other agricultural organizations to take a similar stance,” employment spokesperson and national board member Chris Lewis says. . .

Fonterra’s Flexible Shareholding structure gets green light from farmers :

Fonterra shareholders have today given the Co-operative’s new capital structure proposal the green light with 85.16% of the total farmer votes in support of the proposal.

The final votes on the capital structure proposal were cast at a Special Meeting in Invercargill early this afternoon.

Chairman Peter McBride says the Board and Management are united in the belief that the Flexible Shareholding structure is the best course of action for the Co-operative.

“Today our farmers have agreed. We have received a strong mandate for change with 85.16% of votes cast in favour of the proposal and 82.65% of eligible votes being cast, , 

Rural schools cry out for mental health support – Matthew Scott:

Without proper access to mental health services for students, teachers in rural schools are left putting out fires

On paper, it was a dream job.

Sarah* had taught at an urban intermediate school for six years before packing up and moving to the country.

Her new school in rural Manawatu meant teaching a class of 18 students rather than her old class of 31. . . 

New Zealand red meat exports increase by 27 percent:

The value of New Zealand’s red meat sector exports reached $693 million during October, a 27 per cent increase year-on-year, according to an analysis by the Meat Industry Association (MIA).

Sheepmeat was a standout performer with the value increasing by 25 per cent to $309m. The major sheepmeat markets by value were China, up 25 per cent to $131m, the United States, up 54 per cent to $46m, and the Netherlands, up 94 per cent to $29m.

Sirma Karapeeva, chief executive of MIA, said a mixture of supply constraints and good demand in key markets had contributed to the high sheepmeat prices. These factors included Brexit-related issues and Australia rebuilding its sheep flock.

“The average Free on Board* (FOB) value for sheepmeat exports for the quarter was $12.52/kg,” said Ms Karapeeva. . .

Forest Owners say Fish and Game barking up wrong tree :

The Forest Owners Association says Fish and Game’s criticism of exotic plantation forests doesn’t accord with reality.

“Fish and Game is, quite simply, barking up the wrong tree when it invents what it calls a ‘myriad of adverse impacts’ from exotic forests,” says Phil Taylor, the FOA President.

“It is true that forests moderate rainfall entering waterways – which reduces the risk of floods. But that also applies to native trees – which Fish and Game wants a lot more of – as well as to exotics – which Fish and Game wants less of.”

“The same applies to water quality. Water emerging out of forests is cleaner than that flowing off farmland – irrespective of the type of forest or type of farmland,” Phil Taylor says. . .

Te Mata Exports acquire rights to Bay Queen™ Apple:

New Zealand produce exporter, Te Mata Exports Limited, has acquired the exclusive rights to a new early season apple variety.

Developed by Hawke’s Bay growing operation, Bayley Produce, the Bay Queen™ is New Zealand’s earliest export apple variety. Bay Queen™ has a vibrant bright full block red colour with crisp flesh and it’s smooth, sweet balance makes it broadly appealing.

Te Mata Exports and Bayley Produce have enjoyed a close working relationship for 10 years, originally partnering to manage the global sale and distribution of apples and summerfruit, and more recently working together to trial and commercialise the Bay Queen™.

The exclusive rights will see Te Mata Exports manage all tree distribution, planting, exporting and marketing. . . .


When one law contradicts another

09/12/2021

He was asked for ID when he was buying beer.

He produced it.

The checkout operator asked him to remove his mask so she could check that the face on the ID matched his.

The law requires people selling alcohol to ensure people buying it are at least 18.

The law also requires people in supermarkets to wear masks at all times.

What happens when one law contradicts another as it did in this case?

The shopper is in his mid 30s with a full beard. I would have thought that anyone could see enough of his beard, eyes, forehead and hair outside the mask to be confident he was the man in the ID photo.

But the checkout operator can’t have been sure and must have thought that the liquor licensing law trumped the Covid-19 mask-wearing one.

 


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