A united front against Covid-19 is all very well, but it shouldn’t isolate the Ardern govt from hard questioning

As  the  Covid-19 crisis  deepens, the  country  needs  unity, not politics as  usual:  so  says  the  PM  Jacinda  Ardern.

Repeating  a  theme  she had expressed  in a speech the previous   day, she told  Parliament  on  Wednesday:

There are moments in our history where it’s not business as usual, where New Zealanders expect us to come together”, 

 “We are a nation that has been shaped because of our experiences, and they often have been tough, harsh, and unpredictable. That is when New Zealanders are at their best. That is when we rally: when we look after one another, when we care for the most vulnerable. So my final message is this to New Zealanders: be strong but be kind—we will be okay”.

It’s  a  theme  which has  struck a  chord  with  many New Zealanders, critical  of  anything  which  smacks  of partisan  politics in this crisis.

But. as  the  London “Economist” underlined  in a   leader  on the politics of  pandemics,

All  governments  will  struggle. Some will  struggle  more  than  others”.

It  goes on:

Few  of today’s  political  leaders have ever faced anything like a  pandemic, and its economic  fallout. As  they belatedly  realise  that health systems will buckle and death  mounts, leaders  are at last coming to terms  with the fact  they will have to weather the storm. Three  factors will determine  how  they  cope :  their  attitude to  uncertainty, the structure and competence of  the  health systems,  and, above all, whether   they are trusted”.

The  problem  for the coalition government  is that  its  ministers  insist  NZ  has a  world-class health system,  at   the same  time  as they have been  saying they are  spending  more on  health because   of  “nine years  of  neglect” by the  previous   National  government.

Under  the  present  government, the deficits  of  district health boards  have  risen  sharply.

Meanwhile  panic  buying  in  supermarkets  suggests  prime ministerial admonitions  to keep calm  are falling on deaf  ears.

Crucially,  there  needs to be tight  scrutiny  of  what  the  government  is  doing  particularly in the health sector.

So if  there   are  questions   about  the stock of  intensive  care units  in NZ,  is  that  playing   partisan  politics?

NZ’s stock of intensive care units – just 176 beds – doesn’t inspire confidence, David Galler says.  Galler has been an intensive care specialist at Middlemore Hospital for more than three decades.

And is it  partisan  politics  to  wonder   why, given  it is  day  58 of the coronavirus outbreak,  Health Minister David Clark only now has  launched  the “united  against Covid-19”  public health campaign, alongside  the influenza  vaccination drive.

Describing the $10m campaign as having a simple call to  action, he says it  asks New Zealanders  “to do everything they can to slow the spread of Covid-19”.

Then  there is  the  issue of  how well equipped  the  country is  with  respiratory  ventilators.  It  took  a  bit of an  effort  by the  Opposition in  Parliament to  get  answers.

Point of  Order  leaves it  to   readers  to assess if  the answers are definitive.

On  Thursday  in Parliament, deputy Opposition leader  Paula Bennett put the  question to the  Prime  Minister:

If the Government has been receiving situation reports for 58 days in a row, why, then, couldn’t the Ministry of Health tell journalists how many ventilators there are in the country as soon as a couple of days ago?”

She got this  answer  from the  Deputy PM  Winston Peters  (on behalf of the PM):

The reality is that the minister referred the questioner to the various health boards around the country to give an update as to the existing ones they’ve got, those that can be possibly brought into use as fast as possible with some work, and that’s the updated situation. We’re working on it as we speak”.

Bennett      pursued  the  issue:

Does the Prime Minister think, though, that the government should know how many ventilators there are in the country?

Winston Peters: “The reality is the government does know now how many ventilators there are in the country and those that have not been used of late but are being updated or brought back into action as fast as we possibly can. Then there are other alternatives as well, including offshore purchasing”.

Those  who  wanted to  join Bennett in learning just  how  many respiratory ventilators the health system has  had to wait   until later  in question time to  get a fuller response.

It came from  the Health Minister, who said he was  advised that 238 ventilators are available in ICU and high-dependency unit beds. There are also 44 mobile ventilators across the public health system and 24 ventilators available at private hospitals.

Some operating theatres and post-operative areas also have ventilators that could be used if necessary.

DHB planning is also well advanced to ensure that we have the staff available in the right place at the right time, to ensure the best use of equipment as required.”

  Clark  told the  questioner the priority is to scale up capacity, and that’s why the government has invested $32m to purchase additional ventilated and non-ventilated ICU capacity as part of the $500m package for health announced earlier this week, to back  health professionals to combat Covid-19.

To a  further  question  on  what percentage of the  available  ventilators are already  in  use most of the time for intensive  care, Clark replied:

Historically, under-investment in our health system has meant that the number of ventilators is not as many as in some of the other health systems around the world. That, of course, is why we are putting such a strong focus on stamping out the sporadic cases we’ve seen in New Zealand to flatten and suppress the curve and reduce the pressure on our health service. 

He did not give the firm number sought by his inquisitor.

Asked what percentage of the  available  ventilators are already  in  use most of the time for intensive  care, Clark again fudged the response:

Historically, under-investment in our health system has meant that the number of ventilators is not as many as in some of the other health systems around the world. That, of course, is why we are putting such a strong focus on stamping out the sporadic cases we’ve seen in NZ to flatten and suppress the curve and reduce the pressure on our health service”.

 So how quickly can nationwide ventilator capacity be increased?

Clark   says  he  is  “aware”  that work is under way looking at the feasibility of returning to service some recently retired equipment.

We also need to ensure that we have the staff available to operate that vital equipment, and I understand that additional training is already under way”.

The  answers   elicited in Parliament  on these  key  issues, in  Point of Order’s view,  offer  some  illuminating  insights  into  the state  of the health  system  coping with  the Covid-19  outbreak,  but also into the  competence of the  government.

Clearly,  however  much  New Zealanders  might  believe  there is  much to gain  from a united  front  in this  time of  crisis,  the  role of a  vigilant   Opposition   is  perhaps  just  as  vital.

5 thoughts on “A united front against Covid-19 is all very well, but it shouldn’t isolate the Ardern govt from hard questioning

  1. Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    And Ardern wants no questioning,as hard questions will expose the incompetent response by elements of her regime. Clark is manifestly unsuitable as MOH. Plus, let us note it is the Ardern regime that constantly politicises the Coronavirus crisis

    Like

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