The public health system must be capable of quickly tracing all people with whom newly identified coronavirus victims have been in contact.
This capability must be a critical element in ministers’ video-link deliberations today as the Cabinet decides whether the country is ready to step down from level four to level three in the campaign to conquer Covid-19.
The government should also publish any analysis of this capability by people with relevant expertise.
Some of the experts – we are told – have raised serious concerns.
According to a weekend report in the New Zealand Herald:
Scientists are sounding the alarm behind closed doors at the Ministry of Health over New Zealand’s readiness to move to more relaxed pandemic settings.
Their concerns centre on the ministry’s ability to rapidly trace close contacts of Covid-19 cases and an outdated surveillance system – described by one insider as a “dinosaur”.
If those weak spots cannot be urgently addressed, it could significantly affect the Government’s confidence in moving to alert level 3 when Cabinet considers the issue on Monday.
The ministry received a report on the shortcomings in its contact tracing on April 11 but has yet to release it, the Herald reported.
The report, by University of Otago infectious diseases physician Ayesha Verrall,
… was understood to be damning of the ministry’s tracing approach at the time of the audit.
The delay in publicly releasing it indicates the ministry is still scrambling to improve its tracing capabilities before Monday’s Cabinet meeting.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Wednesday he had received Verrall’s report and officials were “furiously” responding to its recommendations.
He said it would be given to ministers in the next 24 hours and then made public.
However, the Ministry of Health said last night that there was no update on when it would be released.
ACT’s David Seymour is right to demand it be released now.
He has issued a press statement to insist:
“The Government must release a damning report on the Ministry of Health’s ability to do contact tracing…”
He says Otago University infectious diseases physician Ayesha Verrall recently audited the Ministry of Health’s contact tracing capabilities.
The ministry received the report a week ago and Ministers were to receive it on Thursday.
“When to lift the lockdown will one of the most consequential decisions any government has made in our recent history. The Government’s capacity to do contact tracing will be a critical factor in Cabinet’s decision-making.
“If the Government is not open about shortcomings in its COVID-19 response, how can it enlist private sector help? How do workers and businesses plan their lives if they are being kept in the dark?
“The public interest in seeing this information outweighs any reason the Government might have for withholding it.
In his statement, Seymour claims the Prime Minister’s rationale for hiding the report “is nakedly political”.
He references remarks by the PM quoted in the New Zealand Herald report cited above:
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday there was discussion among officials about whether the report should be released before the Government responded to its recommendations.
“But then immediately the question becomes ‘What have we done?’. So we’re putting [them] both out at the same time.
“I imagine fairly soon after the ministers having received it we will put it into the public domain.”
Seymour tartly comments:
“Jacinda Ardern appears to be concerned that if she releases Dr Verrall’s report, the public will have questions for the Government.
“This Government billed itself as the most open and transparent government in New Zealand’s history.
“But it has refused to release Crown Law advice on the legal basis for the lockdown and Police’s significant new powers. Nor has the public seen any of the advice Cabinet relied on for its major decisions over the past month.
“The country is currently being run by a tiny group of Ministers and civil servants. The decisions being taken by them are quite literally life and death.
“The public deserves to be part of the conversation. The Government must start treating New Zealand adults and begin releasing critical information and advice on its COVID-19 response, including its capacity to do contact tracing.”
Seymour doubtless was hoping he would win a few brownie points among voters by demanding publication of the report, which means he – too – is bringing political considerations into the frame.
National’s health spokesman, Michael Woodhouse, has been politicking too.
He says the Government’s announcement of a ‘major investment’ for personal protective equipment is another example of it being too slow to act,
In the announcement, Health Minister David Clark brayed about the government stepping up its support in the response to Covid-19.
But the $200 million Clark mentioned [Woodhouse contends] was not new money or new investment – it was clearly set aside for PPE in the 17 March $12 billion package.
“The Government has chosen not to spend it yet, despite many frontline health workers crying out for more PPE.
“If the Government had spent this investment when it was first announced, then the majority of the PPE needed could have been in New Zealand already by now and be in use.
“Instead, the Government has waited until 128 healthcare workers have tested positive for Covid-19 before finally fronting up with the equipment needed. The Government has also said this PPE is going to arrive over the next eight weeks which will be of little comfort to those who need it now.”
Woodhouse noted that the initial peak of cases had passed, but he maintained the government should expect significant demand for PPE for several months yet and plan accordingly, “rather than be constantly playing catch up.”