Lax and late

04/01/2021

Newshub’s Covid 19 timeline gives the lie to the government’s claim of going hard and early:

. . . January 6: Newshub first reports on the “mystery virus”, when there had been just 59 cases reported. . .

A long list of warning signs and straight warnings from medical experts follows until:

March 26: New Zealand goes into a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, closing most businesses, schools and workplaces. Seventy-eight new cases are confirmed. Lots of people arriving in the country have no plans to isolate.  . .  

The timeline shows that rather than hard and early, the government was lax and late.

Does that matter when Covid-19 has, largely, been stopped at the border and life is as near to normal as it could be with the borders still closed?

If it was only a political slogan it wouldn’t matter.

But if the government believes its own rhetoric and doesn’t accept that it was lax and late and then harsh it does matter.

That would mean it hasn’t learned from its mistakes and the report on our Covid-19 response by Heather Simpson and Brian Roche that was released after parliament rose for the year, showed plenty of mistakes and lessons which need to be learned.

One mistake the report didn’t address was that the lockdown was more than hard, it was harsh. Using the arbitrary essential to determine which businesses could operate rather than allowing those that could operate safely to do so.

That distinction did a lot more damage to too many businesses at a high human and financial cost.

Another problem with harsh rather than hard was delays to diagnosis and treatment of other health problems.

Closing all hospitals to all but those in dire need could have been excused at first. There was no rule book and overseas experience showed the very real risk of hospitals becoming overrun.

However, once it was obvious that case numbers had peaked and were declining with no untoward pressure on the health system, why couldn’t some hospitals have been directed to deal with Covid-19 cases and the others left to treat other patients?

I know of two people whose diagnosis of cancer wasn’t made because their symptoms weren’t considered urgent enough for appointments during the lockdown and who later died. It is possible that might have been the outcome even had they been diagnosed earlier, but whether or not that was the case for them, delayed diagnosis for a variety of ailments will have led to worse outcomes in terms of both quality and length of lives.

One of those was a friend who broke her wrist just before lockdown. It was set in plaster but the cast was too loose. She wasn’t able to get a replacement during lockdown, endured months of pain and incapacity and finally had surgery in December when the wrist had to be rebroken. She is now now just halfway through 10 weeks in plaster.

Has the government learned from its mistakes?

The continuation of the arbitrary essential  rather than safe for which businesses could operate and determination that hospitals were closed for all but absolute emergencies when Auckland went back into lockdown shows they hadn’t learned by then.

They say they’ve addressed, or are addressing, the issues raised in the Simpson Roche report that was completed after that. But have they?

We can be grateful that the lockdowns worked, that there is no community transmission of Covid-19 and we are able to live as normal lives as possible with the borders closed.

But that gratitude shouldn’t blind us to the fact that our freedom owes a lot to luck rather than good management.

With the new more virulent strain of the disease in MIQ at the border, it is even more important that the government  ensures everything possible that can be done is being done to make sure it stays there.


Need trust for unity

27/08/2020

At the start of the first lockdown there was a high degree of trust in what the government was doing.

We didn’t all buy into the rhetoric of hard and early, and some argued that safety rather than essential should be the criteria determining what businesses could operate.

But by and large most of us accepted the need to stay home, stay safe and save lives.

Research of social media by consultancy Rutherford shows feelings over this second lockdown are different:

People are feeling more anxious and angry during the second Covid-19 lockdown than any other time since the pandemic started, according to new social media analysis.

The sense of community New Zealand felt during the first lockdown in March appears to have somewhat dissolved amid growing frustration and despair, suggests the new research by business consultancy Rutherford.

The number of people encouraging others to comply with lockdown rules, by sharing messages such as #stayhomesavelives, has dived by more than 50 per cent, the research shows. . . 

Rutherford analysed about 435,318 social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Instagram from the past two weeks to get a snapshot of how New Zealanders were feeling about Covid-19. . . 

Rutherford chief executive Graham Ritchie said not only had the volume of social media conversation around Covid-19 increased, but negative sentiment was up 10 per cent. It was also more heightened and toxic as people vented their frustration at further restrictions. . . 

At least some of that frustration is due to the growing list of failures from the government and health officials.

There was always the risk that human error would let Covid-19 through the border but shortcomings in testing and tracing were the result of more than human error, they were the result of systems and process failures.

It doesn’t help that we were repeatedly assured that the government and Ministry of Health, bolstered by the military, had everything under control when it is now obvious they did not.

Unity depends on trust and Heather du Plessis-Allan is not alone in losing trust in the government’s ability to keep Covid-19 at the border:

. . . Do we want to go through the list of things this government has told were happening but weren’t?  Because it’s long 

It starts with the time we were promised the police were checking on all retuning kiwis isolating when at home, and they weren’t checking. It included us being told everyone coming out of managed isolation was being tested first when they weren’t. And it goes up to us being told all border workers were besting tested when they weren’t. 

You know, our plan to keep Covid out of the country looks good on paper, but unless it’s actually being done, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Covid will slip through if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do. 

Goodness only knows what the Prime Minister plans to announce to reassure us over this one.  She’s already used the 500 defence force card, the Heather Simpson and Brian Roche card, and the ‘I promise we’ll do it this time’ card. 

Are there any other cards left? 

In fact, you know what?  She shouldn’t even bother, because it doesn’t really matter what she announces to try to fix this, again. I don’t believe a word of what she and her government now say about their Covid response. 

I now do not trust them to keep Covid out of this country any more. 

Grant Robertson won’t extend the wage subsidy for the extra four days of level 3 lockdown because he says we are borrowing every single dollar we are paying out.

Yes, and how much extra are we borrowing because somehow or other the virus is back in the community and we’re now paying the Simpson-Roche committee to check that the people who are supposed to be keeping the border tight are actually doing it?

We’re no long united because we no longer trust the government and health officials to keep us safe.

But unfortunately we can trust them to keep spending more borrowed money to fix problems that wouldn’t have needed solutions if our trust in them to do what they say they’re doing hadn’t been misplaced.


Team let down

20/08/2020

We were told to stay home in our bubbles and we did, even though we now know that the government wasn’t acting lawfully in ordering us to do so for the first nine days.

A Full Bench (three Judges) of the High Court has made a declaration that, for the 9 day period between 26 March and 3 April 2020, the Government’s requirement that New Zealanders stay at home and in their bubbles was justified, but unlawful.  . . 

The government, not surprisingly has seized on the word justified.

It should however be concentrating on unlawful so it learns from its mistake and doesn’t repeat it as it has repeated several other mistakes most glaring of which are those that led to most people working at the border where they could be exposed to Covid-19 not being tested for the disease.

When most of us did, and continue to do. what we are told to do to keep ourselves and others safe it is galling to be let down when those doing the telling aren’t doing all they should be doing.

As Shane Reti, National’s health spokesman said:

 New Zealanders did their part. We all did our part. We’re asking the Government, “Did you do your part?” We believed. We stayed at home. We did our best to keep our businesses running. We did our best to keep people’s jobs. People missed their operations, their diagnostic tests, their school exams. We all did our part. Has the Government done theirs?

You see, we believed we were all part of a team—a team of 5 million. Well, the team of 5 million turned up and on game day, the coach didn’t have the right gear. We all trained during the week. We all went to practice. We all understood the plan. On game day, the coach didn’t have the right gear and hadn’t started the clock. When we were told that Jet Park, our highest quarantine facility for positive cases, we were told all staff were being tested weekly—all staff were being tested weekly. Now we know they weren’t. Yet Ashley Bloomfield said he gave the Minister full and very regular updates on isolation testing. Who do we believe?  . . 

Who do we believe?

 Karl du Fresne shows it is hard to know who to believe::

The big picture is one of a fiasco. Consider the following.

By common consent, the Covid-19 tracing app is a clunker. It seemed to work fine on my phone until several days ago, when it suddenly went into meltdown. After repeated attempts to re-activate it, I gave up.

The police checkpoints around Auckland are a joke, massively disrupting daily lives and economic activity for no apparent purpose. In one 24-hour period more than 50,000 vehicles were stopped but only 676 were turned back. That means people spent hours trapped in stationary cars and trucks for an almost negligible success rate against supposed rule-breakers.

Even worse, people with valid reasons for travelling – for example, trying to get to work or deliver essential goods – have reportedly been turned back or made to wait days for the required paperwork. Others, meanwhile, have been waved through. It all seems totally haphazard and arbitrary, with decisions made on the spot by officers who don’t seem to be working to any clear and consistent criteria. . . 

Then there was the panicked decision – or at least it looked that way – to test 12,000 port workers and truck drivers within a time frame that was laughably unachievable (and perhaps just as well, since it would have caused more business chaos).  

And once again, there were mixed messages about eligibility for testing – a problem that first became apparent when the country went into lockdown in March. The official message then was “test, test, test” – yet people seeking tests, including those showing Covid-19 symptoms, were repeatedly turned away. And it’s still happening.

Glaring discrepancies between what was being said at Beehive press conferences and what was actually happening “on the ground” have been a recurring feature throughout the coronavirus crisis. Many were highlighted by Newshub’s investigative reporter Michael Morrah. He revealed, for example, that nurses and health workers were said to have ample protective equipment when clearly they didn’t.  Similarly, Morrah exposed a yawning credibility gap between what the government was saying about the availability of influenza vaccine and what was being reported by frustrated doctors and nurses.

Somewhere the truth was falling down a hole, but the public trusted in the assurances given by the prime minister and Ashley Bloomfield. Many will now be thinking that trust was misplaced.

The most abject cockup of all was the failure (again exposed by Morrah, though strangely not picked up by the wider media for several days) to test workers at the border. Former Health Minister David Clark told the public weeks ago that border workers, including susceptible people such as bus drivers ferrying inbound airline passengers to isolation hotels, would be routinely tested. This seemed an obvious and fundamental precaution, but we now know it didn’t happen. Nearly two thirds of border workers – the people most likely to contract and spread the coronavirus in the community – were never tested. Some epidemiologists believe the Covid-19 virus was bubbling away undetected for weeks before the current resurgence.

On one level this can be dismissed as simple incompetence, but it goes far beyond that. People might be willing to excuse incompetence up to a point, but they are not so ready – and neither should they be – to forgive spin, deception and dissembling. Misinformation can’t be blithely excused as a clumsy misstep, still less as “dissonance” (to use Bloomfield’s creative English). On the contrary, if misinformation is deliberate then it raises critical issues of trust and transparency.

At a time of crisis, people are entitled to expect their leaders and officials to be truthful with them, especially when the public, in turn, is expected to play its part by making substantial social and economic sacrifices. If the government doesn’t uphold its side of this compact, it forfeits the right to demand that the public co-operate.  That’s the situation in which we now appear to find ourselves. The bond of trust that united the government and the public in the fight against Covid-19 has been frayed to a point where it’s at risk of breaking. . . 

We’ve been asked to do a lot, to trust a lot and we’ve been let down.

That the government has  drafted in Helen Clark’s former chief of staff Heather Simpson and NZTA chair Brian Roche to sort out the border  is an admission of how badly mismanaged it’s been.

Theirs is no easy task and while it won’t be one of their KPIs, helping the government win back trust will be part of it.

 


%d bloggers like this: