Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield (Photo: Mark Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images)

The Bulletin: Day of revelations for health system in turmoil

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Health worker representatives outline string of problems, millions more going to food banks, and mayoral pay in the spotlight.

If you were watching the Epidemic Response Committee yesterday, one thing would have become very clear, very quickly. The health sector is in serious trouble, viewed from the lens of those working in it. The Spinoff’s live blog was watching, and one after another, spokespeople from organisations that represent those working in the sector outlined the same basic problems: There wasn’t enough money to meet rapidly increasing costs, the supplies and equipment that workers needed to do their jobs wasn’t reaching the front lines, and the communication from the health ministry wasn’t good enough. Scroll down from the ‘11.25am: Pharmacies also voicing criticism of ministry, funding’ update, and you’ll see what I mean.

The funding question is particularly acute for GPs and midwives, as Radio NZ reports, and if that doesn’t change, we could end up in the absurd position of medical professionals being made redundant during a health crisis. For some parts of the sector, the problems are unavoidable consequences of the lockdown.For example, Newshub reports the Dental Association is concerned about the lack of access people have had to care over the last month. But at the same time, they’ve also spoken out about “a lack of ready guidelines setting out what dental treatment should look like at each Alert level,” and a lack of available PPE. Other issues are being caused by the fact that each DHB has different systems of delivery.

On the question of PPE, another problem was revealed yesterday. The NZ Herald reports thousands more of the country’s supply of N95 masks – a crucial piece of protective equipment – have been found to be defective, and unfit for use. In this instance, the South Canterbury DHB had their supply replenished immediately by the ministry, so it hasn’t necessarily turned out to be a disaster. But given that it comes on top of around 100,000 masks around the Wellington region being found to be defective, it’s a bit of a worry.

Compounding this all, health workers have told Newshub they’ve been threatened with disciplinary action if they blow the whistle to media. This quote, from an anonymous doctor, is absolutely damning: “The reason hospital doctors don’t speak out is because we are bullied constantly by DHB managers, told not to talk to the press… on the threat of being terminated”. The Waikato DHB told Newshub that they were disappointed to see this complaint being made, as it was “in direct contrast to our policy” – I’d imagine anyone who has ever spent time in a workplace would understand that policies are no guarantee of how things will actually happen on the ground.

The final blow over the course of the day came from Pharmac. Radio NZ reports they will not be able to fund cancer drug Keytruda, because their budget has been squeezed by rising drug prices. Internal documents show the drug buying agency had planned to make the high-profile medicine available – that won’t happen in the near future now, and patient advocates will be furious.

None of these problems are necessarily the government’s direct fault, as they all reflect a system that has been under crushing pressure for a long time being suddenly hit with a crisis. But they’re the ones holding the bag now, and will need to respond rapidly to restore confidence among these groups. There were signs of strain at PM Jacinda Ardern’s press conference yesterday – in response to an allegation from the NZ Medical Association that the early flu vaccine distribution had been a “complete debacle”, Ardern’s response was that she disagreed with the assessment, reports the NZ Herald. From a political perspective, it would be extremely damaging for the government if the impression took hold that they weren’t listening to front line concerns.


Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”


$30 million in additional funding will be put into food banks and other welfare providers, reports One News. It comes on top of a previous $27 million boost in March, which was quickly swallowed up by rampant demand for support. At the Māngere Budgeting Service office for example, the queues have been up to two hours long. Meanwhile, Stuff reports there are still about 160,000 overseas visitors in New Zealand, many of whom need to be looked after as well. The really worrying thing about this tightness is that it’s happening relatively early in what is likely to be a long economic downturn.


Should your local mayor take a pay cut along with huge swathes of the city? Have they done so already? For the second question, the hard work on answering it has been done by the NZ Herald’s Georgina Campbell, but in the case of local elected officials, they actually can’t choose to voluntarily reduce their own pay, so have to instead give a chunk of their pay to charity as a gesture. And some local elected officials are in fact paid very poorly for their public service already.

As for the first question, on whether they should – the Taxpayers Union are arguing that rates should be frozen this year, because businesses are doing it tough, and for elected officials to take pay cuts. Local Democracy Reporter Marcus Anselm got the views of South Wairarapa mayor Alex Beijen on that, who said that the call lacked any research or analysis behind it, and was an irresponsible suggestion. It’s a very tricky issue, because as we’ve discussed in previous Bulletins, most councils are currently facing a big infrastructure deficit, and currently the only realistic way to pay to address that is through rates.


Another timely and important piece from Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Writing on The Spinoff, she has addressed concerns around children being at risk of catching or spreading Covid-19 to others. The evidence here has big implications for the reopening of schools. It’s worth her full piece for a thorough explanation, but in simple terms: kids can get it, they can spread it, and there can be very serious outcomes too – but it’s much less common for children than adults.


A big story for the dairy industry, with the green light being given for Mooving Day to go ahead no matter what alert level we’re at. Newshub reports that strict controls will be in place for June 1, which is traditionally when sharemilking and employment contracts end, and new ones begin. Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor says that dairy farmers should be used to this by now, because of their experience in dealing with mycoplasma bovis over the last several years.


In a symptom of the current situation facing the lower South Island tourist economy, the ODT has reported on the possible closure of a Scenic Group hotel in Dunedin. The company has already closed hotels in Franz Josef and the Fox Glacier, and now one of their two properties in Dunedin is likely to be shut as well. One potential saviour – with the hospital being rebuilt, there will be an increased workforce who need to be housed, which could offer them the chance to at least get some use out of the rooms.


Something to watch out for if you have a fireplace in the home – the chance of unswept chimneys causing the wrong kind of fires. The Wairarapa Times-Age reports that with people at home and with colder weather setting in, firewood sales are up – but at the same time, chimney sweeps haven’t been able to work, because of the level four restrictions. As a rural fire officer quoted in the story says about chimneys, “you don’t know you’ve got an issue until you start cleaning it”.


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

National Party Leader Simon Bridges speaks during the National Party Conference in Christchurch on July 27, 2019. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Right now on The Spinoff: Political commentator Ben Thomas looks at the political predicament Simon Bridges has put himself in this week. We’ve got a video of musicians Marlon Williams and Finn Andrews making sweet music together. Rachel Taulelei writes about the post-Covid future for Māori business. Cat MacLennan writes to the head of Bauer, demanding a refund for her magazine subscriptions. Jihee Junn speaks to Kiwi Wealth’s head of customer services about the big pressure on call centres right now. Emma Boyd has the recipe of a seedy loaf that could be the start of your breadmaking journey. And Shaun Bamber writes about the Cook Islands, their extraordinarily strict border controls, and their total absence of any Covid-19 outbreak as a result.


The billionaires are coming! Or so it would seem from this Bloomberg News article, written by ex-NZ Herald journalist Olivia Carville. She writes that part of the pandemic planning for a subset of this population is getting a survival bunker set up in New Zealand. You could put it charitably, and say they want a little slice of paradise – or put it uncharitably, and say they’re fleeing the societies that they helped create. Either way, here’s an excerpt:

The current travel restrictions complement another order, passed in August 2018, banning foreigners from buying Kiwi homes, partly in response to Americans gobbling up swaths of the country’s prime real estate. That’s been a hurdle for New Zealand luxury real estate agent Graham Wall, who said that in recent weeks he’s gotten about half a dozen calls from wealthy Americans hoping to buy up properties on the island.

“They have all said it looks like the safest place to be is New Zealand right now,” he said. “That’s been a theory since before Covid-19.”


That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.




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