Systems failures

16/02/2021

No matter how good systems are, there’s always a risk of problems because of human failure.

When systems aren’t as good as they could and should be the risk of failure is far, far greater.

New Zealand has had 11 outbreaks of Covid-19 in the community in the last few months.

Multiple shortcomings in systems and protocols uncovered by the Simpson Roche report  point to systems failures in most if not all and it looks like this is the case with the latest one, and that isn’t a surprise:

Otago University epidemiologist Professor David Skegg says it’s no surprise Auckland is going back into lockdown.

“I don’t think we should see this as a surprise, I’ve been saying this all along. There will be more lockdowns in 2021 I’m afraid,” he told Nine to Noon. . . 

Sir David said border workers were doing a good job and they shouldn’t be criticised if there was fault or gaps, but rather the system.

“Recently, I have a sense that the Australians, we’re lagging behind them in some of the precautions. For example, in NSW now, there’s mandatory daily saliva testing of everyone who works at the border or hotels which are MIQ facilities.

“But we’re still doing weekly tests, or in the case of this woman who wasn’t herself been exposed to travellers, but she was working with people who were – she was having fortnightly testing and because she happened to be away the day they came around, it went [on for] four weeks.”

He said slowly piloting voluntary saliva testing once a week was not good enough.

“We need to stop dragging our feet and get on to that quickly.” . . 

The private sector is already going where the government is lagging:

Corporates are signing up for a privately-provided high-frequency saliva test for Covid-19, with government testing services unable to meet the capacity demands of more frequent testing.

On January 22, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced voluntary daily saliva tests for workers at quarantine facilities – first Auckland’s Jet Park, and then dual-use Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities in Wellington and Christchurch.

But just as they got off the ground at Jet Park, they were stopped so the Ministry of Health could focus resources on an outbreak centred at the Pullman Hotel facility in Auckland. Stopping the saliva testing was “due to the need to concentrate efforts on testing at the Pullman managed isolation facility”, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said this morning.

The delayed testing finally got properly underway last week, the Ministry said – more than a fortnight late. As the Ministry testing programme has struggled to cope with higher demand, three organisations have already pushed ahead with privately-provided saliva tests, including Auckland Airport. . . 

If as the government tells us, keeping Covid-19 out of the community is a priority, the Ministry must have the resources to react to outbreaks without sacrificing routine testing.

In November last year, the Simpson-Roche report into New Zealand’s Covid response said the Government had taken too long. “Many other jurisdictions internationally are relying on saliva tests for the bulk of their surveillance,” the report found.

“While work is underway in New Zealand on verifying such testing, on current plans widespread introduction is still more than two months off, even though in other jurisdictions saliva testing, involving large numbers of test per day, has been well established for several months.

“The New Zealand time frame appears to be driven by a presumption that saliva test would replace the PCR test. This need not be so, as it could well be complementary.

“All efforts should be made to introduce saliva testing as soon as possible as part of the range of testing methods being conducted. If necessary outside assistance should be sought to accelerate development. While sensitivity of saliva testing may be slightly less than the current method, the ability to test more frequently and with greater acceptance, may far outweigh that.”

Two months later, Hipkins announced the deployment of saliva tests in the quarantine facilities, saying they would operate as an additional screening tool alongside nasal swabs, for the country’s highest risk border workers. . . 

But that hasn’t happened and meanwhile, Rako Science has quietly deployed its testing in three Auckland organisations. In an announcement scheduled before the latest south Auckland outbreak. the company tells Newsroom it already has capacity to run 10,000 tests a day. Rako has offered its services to the Ministry of Health, but officials chose to rely on the over-stretched ESR labs instead. . .

It’s hard to think of a good reason for turning down this offer from the private sector when public labs are overstretched.

Grice was coy about the pricing in New Zealand, saying it was about $40 to $50 but could be cheaper for bigger companies, because of economies of scale. He said it worked out about 80 percent cheaper than nasal swabs.

Whatever the cost, it would be a lot less than the multi millions of dollars locking the country down costs and it would be another much-needed systems improvement.


Are we in denial?

15/04/2014

Are we an nation in denial?

This is the question Sir David Skegg, president of the Royal Society of New Zealand asks:

. . . Every New Zealander knows that one of the worst threats to our natural environment is the degradation of rivers and lakes.

Some fresh waterways that were previously clean and inviting have become choked with weeds, slime and algal blooms – with adverse effects on insects, fish, and birds as well.

Two other facts are widely known. First, a major reason for the pollution of waterways is the expansion of the dairy industry.

Second, dairy products are New Zealand’s biggest source of export dollars.

Every one of us benefits from the success of the dairy industry. Without its recent expansion, our economic situation might be gloomy today.

Driving through the South Island, I have seen small towns that were dying rejuvenated by local dairy conversions. And I am conscious the sectors in which I work – health, education and research – are crucially dependent on a vibrant economy.

In November, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment issued a report in which she concludes that New Zealand faces ”a classic economy versus environment dilemma”. Jan Wright’s advice is worded diplomatically, but her message is blunt.

Unless New Zealand takes urgent steps to slow the expansion of dairying, many more rivers and lakes will be degraded. None of the steps being taken to lessen environmental impacts can reverse this trend in the near future.

This sobering conclusion emerges ineluctably from analyses linking two models – one predicting changes in land use between now and 2020, and the other predicting the amounts of unwanted nutrients (especially nitrogen) running off farms into streams and rivers.

Dairy farming has become more intensive, leading to a remarkable 60% increase in productivity per hectare over the past 20 years. This has been achieved by applying more water, more supplementary feed and more nitrogen fertiliser to the land.

While good news in terms of revenue, such intensification leads to increased run-off of pollutants into rivers. But the modelling in Dr Wright’s report shows that although intensification is an important factor in the degradation of rivers, the conversion of more and more land to dairy farms is having the greater impact nationwide.

Despite rhetoric from critics about ”dirty dairying”, many farmers have made sterling efforts to reduce the run-off of nutrients from their land. Measures taken include fencing streams and planting ”riparian strips” along river banks.

Unfortunately, such precautions have a limited effect on the seepage of nitrogen (mainly from animal urine patches) into waterways. Other measures – such as employing nitrogen fertiliser more efficiently or breeding animals that excrete less nitrogen – may eventually yield benefits.

Yet a group of experts convened by the commissioner concluded that even taking an optimistic view, plausible improvements by 2020 could at best balance the effects of likely further intensification.

They could not counteract the much greater threat from expanding the number of hectares used for dairying.

Forecasts based on modelling can never be exact, and sometimes they can be wrong. In the four months since Dr Wright’s report was released, however, I have seen no expert rebuttal of her main conclusion.

I have tried to read all the statements issued by agencies involved. That has been a depressing task, because so many have ducked the key point. Consider a couple of examples.

DairyNZ assured citizens that it is ”working with farmers, regional councils and other stakeholders to contribute to desired water outcomes”. IrrigationNZ rubbished the report and thought ”a far more useful question to be tackled is how we grow farming whilst at the same time improve water quality”.

Two of the most cautious and realistic responses were from Fonterra and Federated Farmers.

The Minister for the Environment was less troubled. While acknowledging the need for more work, she was ”confident that with the combined will of our council, communities, iwi, and water users – and with the support of our science community – we will see significant water quality gains within a generation”.

Scientific research certainly has a role to play, but unfortunately investment in this area has been ramped up only recently and is still modest in comparison with the size of the industry.

There is an urgent need to build scientific capability, and I hope the proposed National Science Challenge (”Our Land and Water”) will help to achieve this. We need to be realistic about what can be delivered in a short period: Dr Wright’s experts did not envisage any breakthroughs that could improve things materially by 2020.

The Government has targets that appear mutually contradictory. One target is to double the value of agricultural exports by 2025. As part of this effort, irrigation schemes are being funded to expand the areas suitable for dairying.

On the other hand, the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management requires that the overall quality of fresh water within each region must be maintained or improved. In the light of Dr Wright’s report, can anyone explain how these aims could be reconciled?

We face urgent and difficult choices. If we want to restrict the expansion of dairying in vulnerable river catchments, are we prepared to contemplate a less buoyant economy – at least in the short term?

If we do not limit the expansion, what will be the impact on our second major export earner (tourism) as well as on our quality of life?

How could restrictions be implemented in a way that is equitable for farmers and regions? But before it’s too late, let’s stop pretending that we can have our cake and eat it too.

Sir David has very clearly outlined the issues, acknowledging both the need for clean water and economic growth.

There are already restrictions on dairying in some places.

There is also far more effort going into cleaning up waterways that have been degraded and in maintaining and improving on those with higher quality.

And there is a pressing need for more science capability and for new technology such as the system designed to eliminate waste water on farms:

A new Kiwi designed water filtration system which can eliminate waste water could save New Zealand wineries thousands of dollars annually, has significant export potential for international wine producers and is already being championed by the local dairy industry.

The new waste management process created by Scott Biotechnologies and Allan Scott winemaker Matt Elrick, is designed to rapidly filter the winery’s waste fluids allowing the clean, odourless by product to be reused as irrigation for the vines.

Elrick says the new prototype was created to deal with the Allan Scott winery’s wastewater after growing frustration with traditional wastewater disposal methods, which were expensive, created ponding and associated issues.

He says wineries throughout New Zealand have already tried and failed to come up with a better system for dealing with waste-water at peak times, but many simply revert back to the simple septic tank system.

“With a traditional tank system wastewater settles in a tank, overflows into the next tank, settles there then overflows into the next tank. This means at harvest there often isn’t enough settling time so solids and nutrients tend to jump through the systems faster than the system needs to allow it to be treated, that means you end up with a pretty bad smell,” he says.

The new system which Elrick helped design, means wastewater will now be pumped through a spin separator which uses a cannon to create a centrifugal force and allow clean water to be ejected out of the top and sludge to be forced out of the bottom.

“The clear water goes direct to a discharge tank where it is further filtered and discharged via drip irrigation line onto the vineyard. The remaining sludge waste solids goes through a series of chambers where it can be easily scattered around the vineyard to release its nutrients,” he says.

Elrick believes the technology has significant potential for both wineries and other industries which produce wastewater – including the growing dairy industry.

It is capable of rapidly processing the waste product from winery’s entire harvest without any delay or loss of production efficiency.

“Excess waste production is a huge issues for New Zealand’s horticultural and agricultural industries. In addition to making us more environmentally friendly, this cost reduction technology will also make us more competitive internationally.” says Elrick.

“Essentially we are using our winery wash-downs to create a reusable resource, which is reducing the amount of water drawn from the bore to irrigate our vineyard,” he says. . .

I don’t think we are in denial.

There should be no debate about the importance of clean water.

It’s what we drink, wash with and swim in.

But nor should there be any debate about the importance of economic growth for the social and environmental benefits it can provide.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too. But with good science and improved technology we should be able to have high environmental standards and economic growth.

 

 


Interest free loans too expensive

11/11/2009

Otago University Vice Chancellor Sir David Skegg wants the government to consider charging a little bit of interest on student loans.

Otago University was in the same situation as others in New Zealand. It was doing everything it could to increase income and balance the books to avoid staff redundancies, Prof Skegg told a university council meeting yesterday.

“These are testing times for universities. What I am saying is perhaps a little bit of interest [should be added] to student loans… so the Government can fund universities more and we can keep our tuition fees down.

If the question is, what is the best use of public funds for tertiary education?,  interest free student loans aren’t the answer.

They’re too expensive for the taxpayer and they fund a greater quantity of students rather than a better quality education.

They also make education more expensive. Money spent on interest free loans is money not available for funding universities which, as Otago did yesterday,  have to increase fees and levies. That means students then have to borrow more.

That’s not good for them as individuals and it’s not good for us as a country.

There is no such thing as free education.

I was one of the generation who paid almost nothing for my university studies but tax rates were up to 66% to fund that largesse.

Students forget most of them are at university or polytech for only three or four years and spend the rest of their lives paying tax.

They, and the rest of us, would be better off if they received less while they’re students and paid less tax when they graduate.

They’d also get a better education because at least some of the money which now goes to interest-free loans could be spent on improving the teaching.

Bonding graduates rather than indiscriminately funding students would be much better use of  scarce public funds.

That way money would go to people who graduate and stay here to work, not just anyone who starts studying at a tertiary institution who may or may not complete their studies and may or may not work in New Zealand when they graduate.

It might also do something to correct the imbalance we now have with many more graduates in media and communications than in agricultural science. More of the latter would be much mroe likely to add to economic growth which in turn would make more money available for education.


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