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A man peers through security fencing at an isolation facility in Rotorua. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
A man peers through security fencing at an isolation facility in Rotorua. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsApril 15, 2021

A day that laid bare the need for scrutiny of our Covid-19 response

A man peers through security fencing at an isolation facility in Rotorua. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)
A man peers through security fencing at an isolation facility in Rotorua. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

A sobering series of stumbles yesterday showed the country’s Covid-19 response, lauded around the world for its performance, is showing cracks as it enters its second year. Political editor Justin Giovannetti writes from parliament.

The opposition was left demanding more oversight of the country’s Covid-19 response through the re-establishment of the epidemic response committee yesterday and found itself accusing a government that prides itself on transparency of jealously hoarding data.

Where ministers and officials stalled for time, questions from the opposition exposed a new flaw in New Zealand’s border defences, while health officials belatedly released a vaccination plan for the first time that shows the country’s programme is running significantly behind a draft schedule released last month.

The day began early at a health select committee where MPs learned that an infected security guard at managed-isolation who was supposed to be tested every fortnight had somehow dodged a swab since November 2020, nearly five months ago. On Monday of this week, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield has said the man was last tested in March.

The committee’s morning session did not focus on border failures however. Liz Craig, the committee’s chair, instead asked health officials to talk in general terms about how the border facility works.

The committee is the main venue for MPs to get clear answers from officials about the state of the Covid-19 response. Senior public officials were asked by Labour MPs, however, to detail a “customer journey” through managed-isolation. Opposition MPs, who can only question officials in these settings, watched on in disbelief. 

The frustration was clear in the room, as Bloomfield and the managers of the country’s border system were asked questions by Labour MPs around what they themselves described as “basic science.” 

The opposition did get 20 minutes to ask questions. Among other answers, we learned from officials that despite an announcement in August that private security guards would be phased out in favour of government staff and Defence Force personnel, the plan was still being developed. They should start arriving in October, more than a year after the announcement.

National Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop sought more time to question the officials, but the Labour-dominated committee ignored his request and moved to a closed session.

The prime minister later used the L-word in parliament. The man who tested positive had “lied” to his employer, she said, which had allowed his lack of tests to go undetected. At an earlier press conference, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said he has now instructed that use of a registry that lists tests of all border workers will be mandatory by the end of the month. The system could have raised a red flag if it had been used, but the testing status of the country’s most at-risk workers was being conducted on the honour system.

Hipkins said there were some “people at the margins” of the border system who might be skipping their tests, but the number would be low. Asked how he knew it was low given no comprehensive record exists of testing and the man was only detected after he was positive, Hipkins demurred.

A long promised vaccination plan, where the government put out concrete figures, was the main draw for the minister’s afternoon press conference. The plan eventually appeared three-quarters of the way through, with a few copies handed out by health staff to reporters who were simultaneously learning for the first time that the security guard had misled health investigators who had required help from police to track the man’s movements.

The plan showed that the country’s DHBs are prepared to deliver 1,086,753 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine by the start of July. That’s a quarter of the doses that the government had previously suggested would be delivered by then.

The country’s strategy calls for vaccinations to move to the general public in July. Before jabs are made available to the public, 2.2 million people in three previous groups either need to be completely inoculated or progress needs to be well under way. Those three groups require 4.4 million doses. In response to questions, Hipkins said the country’s vaccination effort would “ramp up” in July.

Based on the current plan from DHBs, the country would need to vaccinate 40,000 people a day after July 1 to finish the effort this year. That’s about the number of people currently being given a shot every week.

Bishop said he had planned to ask Hipkins about the DHB plan during question time, but the data was only posted online a few minutes after his allocated slot yesterday in Parliament.

Hipkins told reporters that the country doesn’t need to revive the epidemic response committee. That group had been a one-time response to the lack of parliament during lockdown and with the return of question time, the health select committee and a weekly press conference, there are enough venues for scrutiny, he added.

Yesterday’s day of stumbles makes a mockery of that claim. Question time, as the speaker often reminds the house, is not answer time. Press conferences are also an imperfect creation, where follow-up questions are hurried and lines of inquiry on technical details are rarely able to be fleshed out.

The health select committee should be the polar star of the country’s response. Experts should be called to testify and all members should ask tough questions, regardless of party. In only a few fleeting minutes yesterday the opposition showed its possible value, while the Labour majority did its best to obfuscate. The country’s Covid-19 response deserves better.

In the latest episode of Gone By Lunchtime, Toby Manhire, Annabelle Lee-Mather and Ben Thomas discuss MIQ, the temporary ban on arrivals from India, the Māori Party’s donations strife and more. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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