21 Jun 2020

Pandemic highlights 'urgent need' for national health agency in NZ

From Sunday Morning, 2:37 pm on 21 June 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a national heath agency to manage threats to public health, says University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

Professor Michael Baker says a review of New Zealand's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic so far is needed to inform future management. Photo: University of Otago, Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

New Zealand was one of the few countries in the world without a dedicated health agency to deal with epidemics and other major public health concerns, Professor Baker said.

"All of us in New Zealand have now witnessed first hand what the country needs to survive a pandemic.

"We desperately need a dedicated national agency to manage these threats.

"That is to provide that critical infrastructure, surveillance systems, testing laboratories, protocols, laws, and this critical mass of scientists working together," he said.

On 16 June, a Health and Disability system review was released. It recommended cutting District Health Boards from 20 to as few as eight, appointing rather than electing health board members, setting up a new Māori Health Authority, and creating Health NZ - a new crown entity that would oversee services and health board finances.

However, the review did not include anything to address the recent pandemic, Baker said.

A review of New Zealand's management of the pandemic so far was needed, he said.

The findings would help in the urgently needed creation of a new national health agency and provide insights into how to manage the prolonged pandemic, Baker said.

On 18 June, the highest number of Covid-19 cases in a day were reported to the World Health Organisation.

Although New Zealand saw no new cases of the virus for 24 days, five new cases have been detected since 16 June among people arriving in the country from overseas.

Baker said New Zealand's elimination of the virus could still be seen as effective so far, because the new cases were all in quarantine.

The definition of elimination is no transmission of the virus within New Zealand.

"Every time you pick up a case in quarantine in New Zealand, it's actually a good thing, because it means the system is working and those people if they're kept in quarantine properly, they won't infect people in New Zealand.

"The world might think New Zealand has lost the battle for elimination, which is not correct - we're still there provided we don't get any secondary cases."

On 17 June, the government suspended all compassionate exemptions from quarantine after two women who had arrived from the United Kingdom were given a compassionate exemption to travel to Wellington to see a dying relative. Both women later tested positive for Covid-19.

Health Minister David Clark said testing systems had not worked as expected, as the women should have been tested three and 12 days after their arrival, but had not been.

The National Party called for Clark to be sacked after the botch-up.

Professor Baker said the current quarantine protocols would be effective in dealing with people who had the virus but showed no symptoms.

Research shows 45 percent of people with Covid-19 are asymptomatic, but can still spread the virus for more than 14 days.  

Baker described Covid-19 as an "appalling illness" that can cause widespread destruction of lung tissue, and damage to blood vessels affecting almost every organ in the body.

Even mild cases of the virus could leave people with a long term syndrome causing intense fatigue, shortness of breath, headache and muscle ache, he said.