Dr Muriel Newman
New Zealand’s COVID-19 free status was short-lived. The team of 5 million is being badly let down by government incompetence at the borders. While bureaucratic ineptitude is nothing new, given the personal sacrifices that everyone was required to make during the lockdown, the stakes are incredibly high.
When New Zealand moved to Alert Level 1 on June 9, we were told that our border was our main protection against COVID-19,and that anyone arriving from overseas was to undergo two-weeks of managed isolation with two tests – one at day three and the other day 12.
The public were understandably outraged following the disclosure on June 16 that two sisters from the UK, who were infected with COVID-19 had been allowed to leave managed isolation in Auckland on compassionate grounds without being tested, and travel around the country.
They borrowed a car and after apparently getting lost, met up with at least two friends for directions, cuddles and kisses, before setting off for Wellington. According to the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, they then travelled non-stop for 8 hours to their destination. He assured the country that they did not stop during the 643km trip for petrol, refreshments, or to use bathroom facilities.
Those who believe that scenario probably also believe in Santa Claus.
The revelations that the two women had tested positive for the virus, led the Government to suspend all compassionate exemptions at the border.
Tracy Watkins summed up public sentiment in her Sunday Star Times editorial when she said:
“The damage done by the government’s border fiasco is almost incalculable. Perhaps the greatest harm is the loss of confidence in another lockdown being worth the terrible pain. If the Government tried to return the country to a level 4 lockdown tomorrow, there would probably be mass civil disobedience. That’s because the mishandling of New Zealand’s border measures has been a massive breach of trust…
“We embraced a stringent lockdown… we believed we had entered into a solemn contract with the Government. Their end of the deal was to use that gift of time wisely; the lockdown was their time to plan, to prepare – and to execute a world-class system that would make all the sacrifices worth something. World-class border measures, world-class detection and quarantine procedures, and world-class contact tracing systems. That was the contract.”
Once the Prime Minister realised the depth of public anger over the incident, instead of standing up and taking responsibility for her Government’s border botch-ups, she used Facebook to make excuses: “my expectations have not been met…”
When that didn’t work, she tried to pass the buck by blaming the media and opposition parties for pressuring the Government into allowing compassionate leave for people in isolation – as if they had caused the blunders!
When Ministry of Health officials were questioned about how many of the 55 people released early from isolation on compassionate grounds (like the British sisters) after the June 9 testing regime had been introduced but had not been tested, it took over a week for them to provide the answer.
It turned out that 51 out of the 55 had not been tested.
Of the four who had been tested, two were tested on the last day, which means they were released into the community without knowing whether or not they were negative.
The Ministry of Health had used the delay in providing the answer to try to rectify the situation:
“Thirty-nine of the group of 55 have been tested and returned negative results. Eleven will not be tested because of health reasons or because they’re children. Three are awaiting test results and one person who has had a test has not returned contact… the person had been referred to enforcement services.”
Work is also underway to trace and test more than 300 people who came into contact with the infected sisters – including those in isolation in the Auckland hotel, and other passengers and crew on their flight from Brisbane. To date five people had not responded to health authorities.
Questions have also been asked about whether everyone leaving their 2-week isolation between June 9 when the testing regime was introduced, and June 16 when the sisters’ case came to light, had actually been tested.
Astonishingly, it turns out the most had not been tested.
Of the 2,159 people released from isolation during that 7-day period, only 800 had been tested.
Again, the Ministry of Health has been scrambling to try to rectify the situation. Of the 1,359 people who had not been tested, health officials have advised that 384 have now been tested and found to be negative, 143 are still waiting for their results, 695 are still to be contacted, and 137 will not be tested for various reasons including refusing a test.
We have now learnt that once outside of managed isolation, people cannot be compelled to have a test unless there’s a good reason to think they might be COVID-infected.
We’ve also learnt of another bungle – the Government had failed to ensure that their new day 3 and day 12 testing regime, that they had introduced on June 9 with great fanfare, was mandatory. Until the error was corrected this Tuesday, June 23 all isolation facility testing was voluntary!
The Government also announced this week that it is introducing regular testing for all workers who could come into contact with infected passengers, including air crew, quarantine and isolation centre staff, drivers, cleaners, immigration officials, customs, and biosecurity and security personnel. Why this had not occurred earlier is difficult to understand.
At the time of writing, New Zealand has 13 active COVID-19 cases at the border – eleven are in quarantine in Auckland and two are in Christchurch.
One of the latest cases originated at the Ibis Hotel in Rotorua, which has been used as an isolation facility since last weekend, when Auckland was said to have reached capacity. As a result 232 new arrivals were bussed to Rotorua from Auckland Airport.
The passengers were given no warning that they were going on a 4-hour road trip to Rotorua, instead of a 20-minute ride to Auckland city. Worse, they were all crammed onto crowded buses, alongside people from COVID-19 hotspots. There was no social distancing or masks, even though the guidelines for such long-distance transfers is reported to involve just 12 passengers on a bus wearing protective equipment.
With one of the bus passengers now testing positive for COVID-19, if others also test positive, what happened at the weekend should surely be regarded as a scandal – yet another example of gross incompetence at the border that could endanger lives.
Concerns have also emerged about the management of the isolation facilities. There are reports of children running riot in hallways, gatherings and parties taking place in rooms, youngsters absconding, and new arrivals mixing and mingling with those who are ready to leave isolation.
Concerns are also being raised by hundreds of permanent elderly residents living in hotels that are being considered for use as isolation facilities, who are desperately worried about the on-going risks of infection.
It isn’t just border botch-ups that have caused alarm either. Right from the beginning of the pandemic major concerns were raised about front-line workers not having access to adequate personal protective equipment. While such anxieties were routinely brushed aside by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, it is now clear that a lack of safety equipment was responsible for many cases of infection, and in all likelihood, led to many of the deaths.
All of these recent events have reinforced the widely held view that while the Ardern Government is great at rhetoric, they are hopeless at delivery. It’s an accusation that has dogged them ever since they were elected.
KiwiBuild didn’t help. Under the stewardship of Minister Phil Twyford, Labour’s flagship policy to build 100,000 affordable homes over a ten-year period failed dismally with only 133 delivered in that first year.
The struggling Minister was finally removed from the portfolio by elevating him into the role of Economic Development Minister. Dr Megan Woods, the Cabinet Minister who cleaned up the mess Jacinda Ardern created when she closed down the oil and gas industry without notice, was anointed Housing Minister to restore public confidence. KiwiBuild was buried within the new Kainga Ora housing bureaucracy.
Obsessed with public perception, the Prime Minister stressed at the time that Megan Woods was not taking responsibility away from anyone: “It has become clear to me that the range of challenges in fixing the housing crisis are too great for one Minister. Therefore, I am putting in place a team of senior ministers to deliver the full breadth of our housing plan, from KiwiBuild right through to tackling homelessness.”
KiwiBuild is not the only failure for Phil Twyford. Under his stewardship, Auckland’s $6 billion light rail project, which he promised would be underway by the election, has been canned. Yet, despite his track record, the Labour Party has promoted him from number 5 on their list to number 4!
When it comes to tackling COVID-19, it’s clear that the Minister of Health David Clark has been unable to cope. Instead of admitting a lack of confidence in her recently demoted Minister, the PM has again brought in her fix-it Minister Megan Woods to take control, claiming her role was “new” and that she was “not taking the responsibility away from anyone”.
To further allay public concerns about incompetence at the border, the Prime Minister announced she was calling in the Army. What she failed to explain was that Air Commodore Digby Webb had already been called in to help – he was appointed in May to assist with border management, and the PM was simply extending his responsibilities.
There is no doubt that the tide of public sentiment is turning against the government, with lunchroom discussions now changing from admiration to ridicule as new blunders emerge.
With concerns about Government incompetence growing, it’s important to remember that questions have also been raised about whether the Alert Level 4 lockdown itself was legal. This matter is going to be considered by a full bench of the High Court next month.
This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, former National Minister Barry Brill, outlines the facts:
“On March 23 2020, the CEO of the Health Ministry, the Prime Minister and the Police Commissioner made a joint televised announcement that every New Zealand business and school was to close, no social mixing was to occur, and every individual was to stay at home. These decrees were to have the force of law for at least four weeks and the only exceptions were ‘essential services’ (undefined). They would be enforced by the Police and all citizens were to obey under pain of imprisonment.
“The Prime Minister described these measures as the toughest in the world and ‘the most significant restrictions on our people in modern history’. The word ‘modern’ ought to have been omitted as neither New Zealanders nor their British forebears have ever witnessed the use of such extensive coercive powers. Indeed, there seems to be no record of such a total demolition of citizen’s freedoms in any democracy anywhere at any previous time.”
Barry explains that the Lockdown was not enacted by Parliament, and while the Civil Emergency Management Act 2002 expressly required Parliament to meet within 7 days of a state of national emergency being declared, the Government used a technical argument to avoid that requirement.
A simple statute from the 1956 Health Act was then used to enforce the Lockdown: “Whether that modest provision was capable of authorizing ‘unbridled power’ some 60 years later is now the subject of an application for judicial review – Borrowdale v Bloomfield – which is expected to be heard before the Wellington High Court sometime next month.”
As Barry explains, if the Lockdown is found to be unlawful, the Government could face claims for damages.
Following the Government’s border control failures, COVID-panic has again set in around the country with queues of people lining up for testing. In spite of the borders being progressively opened for new arrivals and winter bringing an escalation of flu-like COVOID-type symptoms, many community testing stations around the country have been closed down. This is resulting in doctors’ practices in some areas being overwhelmed. Many are also running out of testing kits.
Is this yet another disaster in the making?