Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
There’s a debate raging about how serious the Government’s Covid-19 border testing botch-ups are. Many Labour partisans are calling complaints and media investigations into border management a beat-up and overly-aggressive. They claim problems at the border are being exaggerated, with testing failures of minor importance in the government’s overall success in dealing with the pandemic.
A good example of this point was an extremely popular tweet yesterday by lawyer and PR professional Linda Clark: “Been mulling over why ‘border botch up’ coverage makes me uneasy. It’s lack of proportion and perspective. Can we point out flaws and still recognize NZ is doing well at the same time? I think so”.
Such thinking is very well canvassed today by RNZ’s Hayden Donnell, who suggests the upcoming election is heightening partisanship with regard to how people view the health crisis and the role of the media in holding powerful figures to account – see: A backlash over tough questions for Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
This item focuses on Newshub’s Michael Morrah, who has played the leading role in exposing shortcomings in the government’s border testing regime. Donnell reports that the investigative journalist has been “weathering a blizzard of angry tweets and Facebook comments. One person called him a ‘public health threat to us all’. Others said he should resign for his own ‘failure to do his job’.”
The importance of the border
Of course, there are good reasons to take the border botch-ups extremely seriously. After all, we have known from the start of this pandemic that the country’s borders need to be adequately managed if New Zealand is to achieve our objective of eliminating the virus. What’s more, the revelations of the last week point to more than simply “hiccups”, but serious dysfunction in the way the political system is supposed to work, with what some believe to be deliberate attempts to deceive the public over its failings.
As debate about the botch-ups has progressed, it seems likely that failures of Covid testing have led to the current lockdown. The testing botch-ups topic is, therefore, one of vital importance, especially if the country is going to learn from the failures and correct them.
The debate about how to manage the borders and testing has become the most important issue in the election campaign. This is a point well made yesterday by Heather du Plessis-Allan: “For both health and the economy, nothing else matters as much as the border right now, because it is the most important protection we have for both. Parties can announce as much as they like for future health spending – but if that border leaks, people will die. They can announce as much money as they like for future wage subsidies, but if that border fails and we’re in lockdown, businesses will fall over. They can announce all the infrastructure spending they like but unless that border lets key workers through, the projects won’t get finished. So everything hinges on the success of that border” – see: National might force Labour to lift its border game.
The revelations about the border botch-ups
Given the importance of the borders, and making sure that those coming into the country don’t cause community transmission, the Government has been making promises for the last two months that every worker employed in relation to the border would be routinely tested. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Health, and the Director-General of Health have continued to reassure the public that such testing was being carried out.
The media have pressured the Government over these promises, with many journalists attempting to verify that routine testing was in fact taking place. Newshub’s Michael Morrah then broke the news ten days ago, that the system wasn’t working at all – see his expose: Nearly two-thirds of Auckland’s COVID-19 border, isolation staff had never been tested a week ago.
This news has been met with exasperation. The Herald’s Derek Cheng, who had been asking the government for details of the testing for three weeks without reply, said the revelation went against what the Government had been saying was necessary and being done – see: Government failure to safeguard border astonishing (paywalled). He pointed out that “A quick glance at Melbourne is all you need to see what’s at stake here.”
Elaborating further, Cheng explained that the lack of testing is an ongoing problem that the Government should have learnt from already. He points to controversies in June when “people staying in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities were meant to be tested on day three and on day 12 of their stay. It wasn’t happening, we later learned, because the ministry was still putting it in place. Daily health checks were also not done properly on two Covid-infected sisters, one of whom had symptoms” – see: Horrible sense of déjà vu over Government border blunders (paywalled). He asks: “why is there – still – a giant chasm between what the Government says is happening and what the ministry is doing?”
Both the Government and the Ministry of Health have struggled to respond to Morrah’s revelations. While confirming that routine testing was indeed not happening, it’s unclear why not, with no real explanation nor apology.
Further investigation suggested the Ministry of Health were not implementing the Government’s orders, but the Government also weren’t telling the public this, and it’s unclear why not. For more on this, see Thomas Manch’s The Covid-19 border testing saga that’s going septic amid ministers’ muddled accounts.
After analysing the official information relating to Government orders for testing to occur, Manch explains: “Cabinet ministers were – for weeks – either blind to the problem or labouring under the belief their orders were being followed.” He reports Act leader David Seymour saying that the Government either “didn’t know what was in its national testing strategy, or it lied to New Zealanders about the extent of border testing”.
Chris Hipkins is reported as blaming his officials for the botch-up. Then, later this week, he admitted to not having read the strategy that came from his ministry, which detailed that there would be problems with what the Government had ordered – see Jenna Lynch’s Health Minister Chris Hipkins admits he hasn’t read Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 testing strategy
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been both blaming the workers themselves for not being tested (“We have picked up on reluctance among staff”) as well as saying that the Government hadn’t been kept informed of the problem. According to Tim Watkin, “Both can’t be true. If the Prime Minister was being briefed about reluctant staff, she knew that not everyone on the border was being tested and that the statements she and her ministers were making about all frontline workers being tested were false. For a politician whose reputation is based on trust and who has said she would never lie, it’s been a damaging week” – see: Test Fail: Is Labour bordering on trouble?
Watkin also points out: “union leaders denied that and some workers have come forward to say they have been asking for tests but were told they were not available.”
For more on the sequences of border failures from authorities, see Andrea Vance’s column today, Big little lies: Getting to the facts in New Zealand’s border failures. She expresses surprise that Government Ministers claim to have been kept in the dark by the Ministry of Health, pointing out that the government department publishes their testing strategy with the relevant information on their own website for all to read.
The systems of Government aren’t working
The idea that the Ministry of Health was either not implementing Government orders or not informing the Government of problems with the orders has dismayed many. Commentator Ben Thomas says: “A government agency that can’t or won’t execute policy is an embarrassment in normal times, and a serious risk to public safety during a pandemic. Management of those bureaucrats is very squarely the responsibility of politicians” – see: National needs to keep pounding the accountability drum on Covid response.
And it’s not just that the breakdown is occurring, but that no one in Government can explain why: “A serious communication breakdown between officials on the ground and ministers in the war room is unacceptable, but a failure to account for how it happened is worse.”
The official response from Bloomfield for the failure to provide the promised testing is that it is “complex”. This was elaborated on yesterday by Herald political editor Audrey Young, who suggests Bloomfield and the Ministry need to provide better answers: “Bloomfield may be a good doctor and public health expert but that does not necessarily translate to being the best administrator that can make things happen. There is no good reason for a ministry to ignore a testing strategy approved by cabinet and produce its own variation of a strategy” – see: Judith Collins has stabilised her wobbly start as National leader (paywalled).
In more normal times, Young says, Bloomfield’s failures would have resulted in greater consequences for the Health CE: “Bloomfield would have been called in by his employer, the State Services Commissioner, asked for a please explain and possibly been given a warning if he had not offered his resignation.”
Has public trust been damaged?
Public confidence will be shaken by the revelations of the last week, according to Peter Dunne, who says the previously-calming communications of both Government and officials to the public are now in question: “This week’s revelations of process and policy failures dent that somewhat, and the question will now be whether the media, in particular and the public by extension, will be as willing to accept uncritically that smooth talk in the future” – see: A week is a long time in politics, but nine weeks an eternity.
Journalist Karl du Fresne, worries that the bond of trust between Government and the public is now fraying due to what he says seems like deliberate deception by the politicians – see: Incompetence is one thing, misinformation another.
Du Fresne’s argument about the border testing failures is worth reading at length: “On one level this can be dismissed as simple incompetence, but it goes far beyond that. People might be willing to excuse incompetence up to a point, but they are not so ready – and neither should they be – to forgive spin, deception and dissembling. Misinformation can’t be blithely excused as a clumsy misstep, still less as “dissonance” (to use Bloomfield’s creative English). On the contrary, if misinformation is deliberate then it raises critical issues of trust and transparency.”
He argues authorities have jeopardised public compliance: “At a time of crisis, people are entitled to expect their leaders and officials to be truthful with them, especially when the public, in turn, is expected to play its part by making substantial social and economic sacrifices. If the government doesn’t uphold its side of this compact, it forfeits the right to demand that the public co-operate. That’s the situation in which we now appear to find ourselves. The bond of trust that united the government and the public in the fight against Covid-19 has been frayed to a point where it’s at risk of breaking.”
The column also points to a very good panel discussion on RNZ last weekend in which Jim Moir interviewed Jane Clifton and Richard Harman about the testing revelations. In this, Harman suggested Bloomfield should resign over the testing debacle – see: The Weekend Panel with Jane Clifton & Richard Harman. Clifton appears to have some sympathy for this suggestion and complains that his ministry had established a pattern of “if not outright lying, then failing to supply correct information”.
Should there be an inquiry into what has occurred? Various commentators and epidemiologists have been arguing for this to occur for some time. Although the Government continue to argue against deploying resources for such scrutiny while the crisis is still on, some experts say the need is all the greater to learn the lessons as soon as possible.
For example, University of Otago public health experts Nick Wilson and Michael Baker are reportedly both in favour of early inquiries: “the government wasted the 100 days New Zealand was free of community transmission. They say any inquiry could offer advice to officials every few months, guiding the response to any future outbreaks” – see: Ben Strang’s Government urged to launch inquiry into its pandemic response.
According to this article, these epidemiologists believe “officials sat back and basked in New Zealand’s relative success during past pandemics, which meant systems and plans were not reviewed to an adequate standard.”
Finally, the debacle involving the Ministry of Health’s botch-ups is illustrative of how New Zealand government departments operate, according to former Deputy Chief Economic Advisor at the Treasury, Tony Burton, who writes how the episode is illustrative of how the bureaucracy often fails to serve politicians and therefore the public – see: How govt depts really work – Explaining the border control debacle.