A gap between criticism and reality

From the tone and tenor of criticism in New Zealand, an otherwise uninformed observer would think our leadership has performed as badly as that of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, writes Professor Jack Vowles.

Criticism of the Government over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic reached another crescendo recently.

Alliteration has been used to good effect: we have had a ‘border botchup’ or a ‘border bungle’; phrases widely bandied about without much thought behind them. On the face of it, the evidence seems quite clear. COVID-19 has re-emerged into the community. Someone must be to blame. But unfortunately, we do not know exactly who.

A coolstore worker became infected at the end of July. No connection to any quarantine facility has so far been found. Given the location, the most likely source has been identified as a port—either Auckland or Tauranga. Testing of all port workers has found no other cases.

Meanwhile, further evidence has recently emerged that the virus can survive in cold conditions for up to three weeks. Testing of surfaces at the coolstore has found no evidence, but if there had been a transmission of the virus, it would have been several days before the testing took place and traces might have disappeared by then.

We do not know, and may never know, who was to blame. Was anyone? A recent case of transmission to a maintenance worker in the Rydges Hotel shows how easy it is to transmit the virus. Two people occupied a lift within minutes of each other. The person infected was wearing protective clothing. We do not know exactly how it happened, but no one is blaming the person infected. It is best put down to bad luck, and a reminder that COVID-19 is a nasty and highly infectious disease.

Further refinement of protocols may be possible to make such transmissions less likely in future, but nothing in this game is foolproof. Some equally random event may have led to the appearance of the virus in the Auckland coolstore.

As it stands now, the ‘botchup’ being criticised cannot be directly connected to an identified border failure. The point of criticism has been the failure to implement a policy agreed by Cabinet, and announced by former Health Minister David Clark, that all border workers would be regularly tested for COVID-19.

But the Ministry of Health had advised against such systematic testing of border workers without symptoms, many of which had only casual or no contact with potentially infected travellers. It pointed to the administrative complexity of the policy and the low likelihood of there being cases among asymptomatic workers not in contact with travellers, particularly given regular health checks and the wide use of protective clothing. Systematic border testing, while ‘nice to have’, was not a priority. Nonetheless, the policy began to be rolled out, although too slowly to satisfy the Government.

All border staff have now been tested and after thousands of tests only one symptomatic case has been found—one that would have been identified anyway. If the source of the recent outbreak was indeed surface transmission through the coolstore, based on knowledge available at the time it could not have been anticipated. Meanwhile, community transmission appears increasingly under control and there is still only one cluster—although its boundaries are still uncertain.

Testing has reached unprecedented heights. New cases are expected to be lower and lower each day, subject to some fluctuation. The Government’s response strategy has been remarkably impressive, at least up until now.

Meanwhile, many New Zealanders have found the depth, extent, personal and aggressive nature of the criticism of the Government and its officials troubling and unfair. Full testing at the border, important though it is, has not exposed significant shortfalls in the protocols. At a time when social media and some politicians have been repeating ‘fake news’, allegations that go so far as accusing government officials of lying run the risk of undermining trust, reducing compliance with the measures intended to eliminate the virus, thus damaging their effectiveness. There is emerging evidence of a corrosive effect on public attitudes and behaviour.

Those of us who follow the progress of the virus elsewhere find it disappointing. Apart from Taiwan, with a public health system well geared toward disease control and a population with a memory of an earlier pandemic, almost every country that has managed and contained the virus has had a community resurgence.

New Zealand’s ‘go early, go hard’ approach has continued into the latest outbreak. By contrast, the Australian state of Victoria delayed its response, with devastating consequences. Other countries have relaxed their lockdowns too soon, only to find they have not rescued their business and their economy, but instead prolonged the pain in recurring cycles of lockdown and release.

Failures in the pandemic responses in the United Kingdom and the United States have been obvious and serious. From the tone and tenor of criticism in New Zealand, an otherwise uninformed observer would think that the performance of our leadership has been as bad as that of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Really?

Professor Jack Vowles is in the Political Science programme at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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