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.


Is it fit for purpose now?

22/12/2020

Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche delivered their report on New Zealand’s Covid-19 response in September. It was finally released last week, after parliament had risen.

Given it’s content, it’s not surprising the government didn’t want parliament’s scrutiny and did want public attention elsewhere.

Thomas Coughlan says the report is damning – and particularly damning of the Ministry of Health, the heroes of the Covid-19 response.:

Of the 28 recommendations made across two reports, 25 were for the Ministry – the criticism is wide-ranging and accusations of what amounts to a power grab by the Ministry of Health, which didn’t properly share information with other ministries or even ministers and failed to cooperate properly with the rest of Government.

The report found that the there was “inappropriate accountability” for different parts of the strategy and that “numerous written reports” from the Ministry on progress it was making at the border “did not always reflect concrete action on the ground”.

The report said the Ministry’s approach to the implementation of policy “was often seen as being at odds with the overall collective interest”.

Testing rates – something we know is crucial to the keeping Covid out – were kept low because the Ministry was lax in actually paying the people doing the testing.

Unsurprisingly this led to “increased dissatisfaction with the system and at times made for reluctance to increase testing rates, consequently reducing access”.

This gives credence to the view that keeping the disease out has owed a lot to luck.

It’s little wonder that the official answer for not releasing the report earlier was to give the Ministry time to respond to allegations of serious failings on their part.

Other parts of the Government “without exception… expressed concern at their ability to be ‘heard’ by the Ministry of Health.

Other agencies and the private sector said the Health Ministry acted without full regard for the impact of its decisions, even as they “consistently sought more input into operationalising implementation plans”.

This can’t have been helped by the fact that the big cross-government group (All of Government group or AoG) set up to manage the pandemic didn’t actually include the Ministry of Health. The Ministry decided on its own not to participate.

Did the Ministers know that?

Once the country went back into level 1, that problem deepened. The AoG “effectively became a ‘Rest of Government Unit’ being everything other than Health”.

This was a problem because at the time, difficulties n communication in the Health Ministry meant future planning had to be put on hiatus.

Throughout the pandemic, public servants and ministers have struggled to strike the balance between public heath and other concerns. This report suggests that the Ministry of Health didn’t even try to strike that balance, sending off policy advice to ministers before consulting other parts of Government.

“The Ministry of Health is the principal advisor to the Government as it is essential that decisions taken as part of the response are firmly grounded in the best public health science,”

“At times, however, this seems to have been interpreted as meaning that advice should not be influenced by information or legitimate concerns expressed by other sectors.

“That should clearly not be the case,” the report said.

Is anyone being held accountable for that?

“Too often decision-making papers have gone to Cabinet with little or no real analysis of options and little evidence of input from outside health or even from different parts of the health Ministry or sector,” the report said.

The reviewers acknowledge that such chaos would be forgivable in the first weeks of the pandemic, but “it should not be continuing eight months into an issue as we are currently facing”. . . 

The MoH is a policy organisation not designed for implementing strategy, but if it was sending papers to Cabinet with insufficient analysis it wasn’t even doing policy well.

Michael Morrah lists the key themes in the report:

  • consistency and quality of communication, and consultation with relevant stakeholders was suboptimal
  • inappropriate accountability for various aspects of the strategies and their implementation
  • border control directives have been difficult to understand and implement
  • lack of clarity in the testing framework
  • lack of good forward planning from the perspective of an end-to-end system
  • underutilisation of health expertise outside the Ministry of Health leading to suboptimal analysis and planning documents
  • lack of confidence in data being reported to key decision makers.
  • The report says “exhausted” officials weren’t ready for the August outbreak, which sent Auckland back to alert level 3 after 102 days of no community transmission.

“The immediate goal had been achieved and much focus rightly turned to supporting economic recovery. In hindsight, however, better use could have been made in the 102 days to prepare for the inevitable outbreak. 

“This is important, not as a criticism of the actions in the past, but because it is essential, we learn that lesson now.” 

Have the lessons been learned and the necessary changes been made?

The patchwork of agencies and ministries involved in the response had done well, the report said, but the arrangement wasn’t sustainable in the long-term fight against COVID-19.

“We don’t have a status quo model which is well understood and could serve effectively for the next 24 to 36 months,” Sir Brian and Simpson said. “While the model is improving it is not yet fit for purpose.” 

It wasn’t fit for purpose when the report was written, is it now?

New South Wales has had another outbreak of Covid-19 and the UK has a new and more virulent strain of the disease which will almost certainly come here:

New Zealand will see the new variant of Covid-19 from the UK here within the next few weeks, a top epidemiologist warns.

But, the new Covid-19 variant found in the UK is potentially only a problem for New Zealand if the virus is imported and it starts an outbreak here, Professor Michael Baker said. . . 

“Basically every time we get an infected person going into a MIQ facility in New Zealand, it increases the risk of outbreaks because mistakes happen and it’s a tough virus to control.”

He said a simple measure is to add an extra step, an additional period of MIQ stay in the UK and having a negative test result before travelling.

“We will be bringing this virus into New Zealand now, or in the next few weeks because it’s becoming the dominant virus there.”

National Party election policy was to require MIQ and a negative test before people boarded planes to come to New Zealand. That wouldn’t stop everyone with the disease but it would catch some of them.

The logistics wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be cheap but if it kept at least some infectious people out of the country it would be worth it, especially if our model isn’t yet fit for purpose.

The Simpson Roche report is here.


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.

 


Key tops Listener power list

01/12/2008

John Key is number one on The Listener’s 2008  power list, up two places from 3 last year.

He’s followed by Bill English, who was at 5 last year, Alan Bollard (6), Steven Joyce (new), Tumu Te Heuheu (13), Pita Sharples (9), Rodney Hide (new), Helen Clark (1), Michael Cullen (2) and another newcomer to the list Gareth Morgan.

For the past four years the list has been a comprehensive one ranking 50 people in a variety of fields, this year’s list has the top 10 with 11 different lists of five for other categories.

They are: heroes topped by Willie Apiata VC; business & economy where Graeme Hart is number 1; Maoridom led by Federation of Maori Authorities chief executive Paul Morgan; the law where Sir Geoffrey Palmer is at number 1; agriculture topped by Landcorp chief executive Chris Kelly; health & medicine led by Health & Disability Commissioner Ron Paterson; arts, culture and entertainment with Flight of the Conchords in the top spot; science and technology where science entrpreneur Jim Watson is number 1; the media led by Dominion Post editorTim Pankhurst; environment with David Parker in the top spot; and sport topped by Sparc chair John Wells.

Some observations on the list:

*  The only woman in the top 10 is Helen Clark who’s slipped from 1 to 8 and as there’s usually nothing so ex as an ex-Prime Minister she is unlikely to be in the list at all next year.

* There are only seven women among the 55 people on the other lists.

* The environment list is led by a former minister followed by Jeanette Fitszimons and Russel Norman, all of whome are now in Opposition.

* David Farrar of Kiwiblog is in the So close but missed the list  category under media which reflects the growing influence of the blogosphere.

UPDATE: The list isn’t yet on line but the print edition says:

And yes, the panel did consider the bloggers, but was not convinced that any of those opinionated voices were yet having a marked influence on Main Street.

It also notes:

A total of 55 people have appeared in the Power List in the five years it has been published by The Listener. Only four people have been on all five lists: Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Alan Bollard and Graeme Hart. Ths is the first year neith Labour supremo Heather Simpson nor All Blacks coach Graham Henry has appeared on the list.

Of the total, just 27 (17.4%) have been women. And only 16 of the total (10.3%) live in or are strongly associated with the South Island.


Speaker assists Act election campaign

26/08/2008

The Labour Party is in disarray tonight after Speaker Margaret Wilson admitted she has been assisting Rodney Hide with Act’s election campaign.

“It started on August the first when Rodney provoked me into cracking a joke. Everyone laughed and I liked it and people liked me. It was all such fun and I wanted more of it,” she said.

“I realised then it wasn’t going to happen with Labour in power, you see we’re not allowed to laugh. Helen says so and Heather makes sure we do what we’re told. But I liked laughing, I’m sick of being the bossy one, no-one likes, it’s lonely.

“That’s when I made the decision to help Rodney’s election campaign and that’s why I did what I did today.

“I kept saying I was sorry but I wasn’t really, because I knew that if I didn’t let Rodney ask his question and then sent him out he’d get all that wonderful publicity and Act would get more votes and join National in government and then we’ll all have so much more fun in the next parliament. Not that I’ll be there but I’ll still watch it on TV and be able to see Rodney. He’ll be a Minister and all because I helped him.

“It was going to be our little secret, but I had to come out about it because everyone’s picking on me. They think I was wrong  and they’re saying nasty things  because they don’t understand  what I was doing.

“Of course I wasn’t letting Winston Peters get away with anything fishy or hide behind standing orders or parliamentary privilege; and it had nothing at all to do with needing his votes to pass legislation for the Emissions Trading Scheme; and I definitely wasn’t being unfair to Rodney.

“That would be showing bias, it would bring the house into disrepute, goodness me, it might even prompt people to suggest I was incompetent and cast aspersions on my impartiality, then they’d start going on about freedom of speech and democracy. And we couldn’t have that just because they didn’t realise I was joking.”

Labour leader Helen Clark could not be reached for comment but her spokesperson Heather Simpson said she thought is was a hoot.

Hat Tips: Keeping Stock, The Hive, Roarprawn, Half Done,


Too many questions too few answers

30/07/2008

Another day but still no answers to the qeustions about donations to NZ First and its leader.

The Dominion reports: Would that be acceptable for any other Minister, or any other MP responsible to her?

Five days after NZ First leader Winston Peters promised to return to New Zealand and answer questions about donations to the enigmatic Spencer Trust in an “orderly fashion”, its purpose and funding remain secret.

 At a 45-minute meeting yesterday with Prime Minister Helen Clark, Mr Peters gave an assurance that he and NZ First had done nothing illegal. Miss Clark’s chief of staff, Heather Simpson, Mr Peters’ lawyer and a NZ First staffer also attended the session.

It appears even Miss Clark remains in the dark over how the trust operates; she told Parliament yesterday Mr Peters’ word was good enough for her.

That wouldn’t be enough for any other MP responsible to her let alone a Minister.

The Herald notes another day, another promise.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters insists that there is a “massive” difference between his party getting funding from corporate donors via secret trusts and other parties getting it. He won’t say what, but is promising to spell it out in Parliament today.

But he failed in Parliament yesterday to give answers about Sir Robert Jones’ $25,000 donation to the secret Spencer Trust in 2005, despite having promised during the weekend that he would.

Sir Robert yesterday would not rule out calling in the police if he did not get a satisfactory response about what happened to his money.

Outside the House, Mr Peters was asked what the difference was between his party getting large donations from corporate donors via secret trusts and other parties getting it.

Mr Peters said the difference was “massive”, but that the reporters were not capable of understanding it. He said he would explain it today.

Another Tui moment from the master of manipulation, but manipulation is not acceptable for a Minister.

If there is ever a time we should be grateful that we are a tiny nation on the edge of the world it is now. Imagine what this behaviour from a Minister of Foreign Affairs would do to our reputation as a country relatively free from corruption if other countries noticed or cared.


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