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.