Too much politics not enough science

03/03/2021

Auckland Professor of Medicine Des Gorman is less than impressed with the ‘deja vu’ lockdown:

The situation the country has found itself in was “déjà vu” after the second lockdown in less than a month, one medical professor says. 

The latest cases of Covid-19 have plunged Auckland back into Level 3 lockdown, with the rest of the country at Level 2 – coming barely two weeks after the last three day lockdown. 

Auckland University professor of medicine Des Gorman told Mike Hosking it seemed plans were being made up on the spot. 

He said it showed our “inconsistent risk-management approach”, and the Government needs to improve 

“If we needed to be in level three two weeks ago, then coming down to level two in one was clearly precipitous and early.” 

Why is it like this?

Gorman said the Government’s Covid-19 response was too much politics and not enough science. . .

The way Prime Minister Jacinda Arden chose to put herself front and centre of the daily sermons from the podium of truth made the response overtly political.

There might have been grounds for her presence and delivery at first in reassuring the country as we faced the first lockdown and growing numbers of Covid-19 cases.

But she chose to stay in the limelight long after one of her ministers and more appropriately Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield should have been the ones delivering updates.

That paid off with the election result giving Labour an outright majority but it came with risks that MIchael Bassett points out are now becoming apparent.

Watching TV last night, I couldn’t help thinking that the Prime Minister’s extraordinary luck is starting to run out. Every aspect of her lockdowns was questioned. Endless bungling over the South Auckland community outbreaks of Covid 19 were revealed, and she didn’t seem very happy about any of it. She has only herself to blame. After twelve months of wrestling day in, day out with the virus it was inevitable that eventually she would lose control of issues, given that so many other things have to be dealt with by any Prime Minister.

This is why successful leaders of governments have learned over the years to delegate. Jacinda Ardern has a bloated ministry of 26 members with two under-secretaries as well, but she insists on doing too much herself. She’s been told by her advisers that she is the surest pair of hands in the Ministry and that her popularity is vital to Labour’s standing with the public. For three years now that has been true, and even although she has sometimes seemed to be engaged in a running totter around the lip of chaos, she has remained upright. The overwhelming impression I gained from last night’s news was that if she insists on handling every detail and fronting every day on Covid 19 she will fall in. After twelve months of testing, getting the results takes far too long, contributing to the recent South Auckland problems; contact tracing has been haphazard of late; assurances the Prime Minister kept giving about lockdown rules and their enforcement proved to be wrong; her line on whether to pursue people who break the rules has been wobbly to say the least; and the silly decision to stop short of vaccinating front-line GPs in South Auckland, which wasn’t her call, reflected back on Ardern because her control of everything Covid is so omnipresent. . . .

That worked for her when she had our trust but that is being eroded by repeated lockdowns and the apparent failure to accept mistakes are being made and to learn from them.

Perhaps the international praise has gone to her head.

There is no doubt New Zealand looks good when compared with many other countries, but as Heather du Plessis-Allan points out, we don’t compare well with others:

We will always tell ourselves another lockdown is fine if we keep comparing ourselves to the worst Covid-hit countries, especially the UK and the US. Because seven days looks paltry compared to the months and months they’re pulling in the UK.

But what about all the places fighting Covid without yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns What about all the places that haven’t even had a single lockdown?

We’ve talked about Taiwan ad nauseum. Not a single lockdown there, and only nine deaths. By comparison we’ve had 26 deaths and several lockdowns.

What about New South Wales, which is increasingly looking like an example of how to combat Covid. They haven’t had a single state-wide or Sydney-wide lockdown this entire pandemic. Meanwhile, Auckland has had four lockdowns, which will be a total of 11 weeks – or nearly three months – at the end of this week.

NSW’s biggest city, Sydney, hasn’t had a single week with the whole place in lockdown. NSW has had 54 deaths, which isn’t bad for a population of about 8 million.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s response is nuanced. They lock down suburbs and hotspot areas, so if there’s a flare-up in the Northern Beaches, the restrictions are limited to the area, not the entire state, or even the entire city. Compare that to NZ, where Invercargill is in level 2 right now.

NSW is actively trying to avoid lockdowns. They have an excellent contact tracing system so they can put sick people into isolation, rather than all people into lockdown.
And last I checked they just went 40 days or so without a community case.

You are welcome to keep comparing us with northern hemisphere countries who are in the depths of winter to see how well we’re doing, because we’re always going to be better than the absolute worst in the world.

Or you can compare us to NSW, just across the ditch, to see how much better we could be doing.

Lack of compliance with isolation requirements is the immediate cause of the latest lockdown but as the ODT editorialises, we can point our fingers at the government too:

The Government, and especially the Ministry of Health, does not escape blame. Despite many hard-won improvements over the past 12 months, parts of the ministry’s operations are still lethargic when these crises hit.

New Zealand’s lucky streak, supposedly, ended because of the community case from one of the few Papatoetoe High School families not contacted for about a week after contract tracers went to work. Apparently, various phone numbers were often tried.

The failure to door-knock within days, however, was not misfortune but lack of urgent drive. Any decent media reporter, when phone calls failed, would have been visiting the family home long before the first family positive test.

Similarly, the wait by patients for many hours for advice from Healthline is poor.

How many people, who should have been tested, simply gave up? An underlying message is that the Government, despite all the strong words, might not really care that much. Only now, late as usual, do we learn of further scaling of surge capacity on Healthline.

There remain major questions, too, about the lack of use of saliva testing. . . 

There are also questions about the MInistry’s and government’s competence when contact tracing is failing us:

After more than a year of dealing with Covid-19 the Government is still failing its own contact tracing performance measures and is failing to be open and transparent about locations of interest, National’s Health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti says.

Information supplied to National from the Health Minister show that in both the recent Northland case and the Papatoetoe outbreak, the Ministry of Health failed against two measures of contact tracing that were considered ‘critical’ by the Government.

The Government sets a target of having 80 per cent of contacts of an index case located and isolated within four days. But in some cases related to these two incidents, only 52 per cent of contacts were isolated within four days.

“Alongside reports from the current Papatoetoe outbreak that contacts were called but not visited, this shows the Government needs to do better with contact tracing,” Dr Reti says.

“Dr Ayesha Verrall’s audit into the Government’s contact tracing regime last year made it clear that our system was lacklustre, and the Government promised to turn this around.”

The Government needs to say whether its contact tracing indicators have ever been completely met in any of the many community outbreaks since the Americold community cases sent Auckland into lockdown last year, Dr Reti says.

“There is no excuse for not implementing Dr Ayesha Verrall’s recommendations in full given she’s sitting right there at the Cabinet table.”

Meanwhile, recently released documents show six locations of interest were undisclosed in the recent Northland outbreak – nearly 20 per cent of all the locations in that case.

“The Director General of Health has said non-disclosure is a rare event but nearly 20 per cent of all locations can’t possibly be considered rare,” Dr Reti says.

“It’s important that the public knows these locations because it impacts not only the people inside but potentially those outside, like kerbside rubbish collectors.

“Properly identifying locations of interest would likely lead to more people coming forward, rather than less.

Claiming that medical centres don’t need to be disclosed because they have an appointment book that shows who was there doesn’t really work as an excuse, Dr Reti says.

“As someone who has owned and managed many medical centres, I know it’s not possible to tell who is in the waiting room at any one time, who are accompanying patients, or who has entered just to use the bathroom or pass a message on.

“We need to understand the rules for non-disclosure and they need to be consistently applied and with an assurance that the risk of transmission is exceptionally low.

They might have got away with mistakes in the early days when, as they pointed out there was no rule book.

But it’s now a year since the first case of Covid-19 was diagnosed in New Zealand and that excuse has long past its use-by date.

Most of us have done as requested but patience wears thinner with each lockdown and the government’s failure to be open about its plans over where-to-from-here raises questions over whether or not it has one.

Businesses are justified in asking for the plan to be made public.

Some of the country’s most powerful business leaders are demanding the government lay out its Covid-19 plan, including how it is measuring its current strategy and its plans to get the border open. . . 

The group is calling for clarity and openness, saying the details need to be made available beyond government circles.

Mercury chair Prue Flacks said major New Zealand businesses would welcome the opportunity to assist the government in its longer-term planning.

“We’ve seen the open and transparent approach taken by Australia on its vaccine roll-out plan, the launch last week by the United Kingdom government of a clear plan to manage a path out of its current lockdown and the ongoing success in Taiwan of avoiding lockdowns through using technology to manage home isolation.

“It will be beneficial for all New Zealand if the Ministry of Health and other agencies take an open and transparent approach to the development of a path towards sustainable virus management.” . . .

We are all justified in not just asking for the plan, but asking that it be less about politics and more about science.


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