Week in Politics: Andrew Little's bad week

12:35 pm on 15 July 2022

Analysis - More than 900 doctors warn the health workforce is in serious trouble as the surge in Covid cases and hospitalisations draws a response from the government; the prime minister goes to Suva where there's superpower politics at the Pacific Islands Forum and new ways to tackle gangs are unveiled.

Health Minister Andrew Little

Andrew Little. File photo Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Doctors are warning the government there is a risk of a catastrophic collapse of the healthcare workforce." RNZ's report didn't pull any punches after a survey presented the most compelling evidence so far that the system was indeed in crisis.

The Women in Medicine Charitable Trust surveyed more than 911 doctors, half in primary care and half in secondary, and said the response revealed profound distress over widespread under-staffing and under-resourcing.

In the survey, 93.5 percent said there was "definitely" a healthcare workforce crisis and another 6 percent said there was probably a crisis.

Trust chair Dr Orna McGinn told Checkpoint: "It was very upsetting to read some doctors describing themselves as broken or feeling that they had to leave their jobs, some had already left their job."

McGinn said there wasn't a single specialty which was not suffering a crisis in workforce staffing.

That's how the week started and it was shaping up as a bad one for Health Minister Andrew Little.

On top of the survey came another flurry of awful health headlines. Here's just two of them: Sick waiting under leaking tent at North Shore ED (NZ Herald). Nurse 'ashamed and embarrassed' to work in a health system in 'tatters' (Stuff).

Little fronted the media after the survey was released, taking another of the grillings he has become so accustomed to.

He told Morning Report: "We have a chronic staffing shortage and we are having one of the worst winters we have ever had because of Covid, because of the flu season we are having at the moment.

"I saw the quite despairing comments (in the survey). I get that, I hear that, I understand that."

On Newshub's Am Show, he said the reason the government changed the health system was because it had been "simply incapable of managing the chronic problems".

"In the five years we've been in government we've added 5500 clinically qualified people to our health system, it's why we've increased funding to the extent we have," he said.

With Parliament in the second week of the three-week winter recess the opposition had limited opportunities to comment, but National and ACT will be back with a vengeance when it resumes on 26 July.

During his media appearances Little was pushed hard by some interviewers over his refusal to call the situation a crisis. (Crisis - a time of intense difficulty or danger: Oxford Languages)

It's an easy, confrontational angle, it's been used for weeks and it's becoming tedious.

Facing "is this a crisis?" questions on the AM Show this week, Little said that during the less than two years he had been minister he had been told of multiple crises in the system. "The term is debased in health at the moment the terms used to describe issues shouldn't be a topic of conversation."

Ayesha Verrall

Dr Ayesha Verrall. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

National Party leader Christopher Luxon seemed to have a similar attitude. "Whether you call it a crisis or whatever, the key thing is we need action. We need to get some things done," he said.

Covid and flu cases, and hospitalisations, continued to surge this week and on Thursday the government announced its response.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the increases had been rapid with older people the most affected.

If nothing was done, hospitalisations were expected to peak at 1200 beds occupied per day and community infection would peak at around 21,000 cases a day.

Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said the government had weighed up the possibility of moving to the red traffic light setting but the main difference it offered was in limiting gatherings, and the most effective measures were masks, vaccines, and stopping the spread of the virus through isolation.

She announced an end to the eligibility criteria for access to free rapid antigen tests. People would no longer have to say they had symptoms to get free RATs.

There would be a new campaign to encourage people to get boosters, with health officials texting and calling eligible people.

There would be wider eligibility criteria for antivirals like paxlovid, molnupiravir and the infusion veklury. Anyone over 75 would be eligible.

"We believe we can get through, focusing on the basics of masks, vaccination, ventilation and staying home when you're sick," Verrall said.

She warned, however, that the virus could mutate and the government needed the option of being able to increase restrictions.

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Michael Baker. File photo. Photo:

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told RNZ much more was required to prevent the worst outcomes of a "really grim winter".

"We are missing the fundamental measure to stop sharing this virus widely and that is universal mask use indoors," he said.

New Zealand needed to shift to becoming a "mask-using society" which he believed could be achieved only through mandating their use in most indoor environments.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta attended the Pacific Island meeting in Suva this week where US Vice-President Kamala Harris upstaged everyone with an unprecedented virtual address.

Observer countries, including the US and China, had been officially excluded because the meeting had intended to focus on unity within the organisation, the Herald reported, but Harris was granted access by chairman and Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

"We recognise that in recent years, the Pacific Islands may not have received the diplomatic attention and support that you deserve," she said.

"So Today I'm here to tell you directly we are going to change that."

Those comments explained precisely the situation the US, Australia and New Zealand find themselves in. After years of failing to pay enough attention to the South Pacific, they're now trying to counter China's attempts to increase its influence in the region.

Harris said the US would open new embassies in Kiribati and Tonga, triple the funding for economic and ocean resilience and appoint the first-ever US envoy to the forum.

"We will engage transparently and constructively, which means we will listen, collaborate and coordinate at every step of the way," she said.

Stuff said the US was making "its biggest Pacific push since World War II".

The Herald reported China tried to insert itself into a forum fisheries meeting when two embassy workers initially posed as media. They were removed by security.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks via video-link to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva on 13 July, 2022.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaks via video-link to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva on 13 July, 2022. Photo: AFP / William West

The forum is facing unity problems and of its 18 members four did not attend the meeting for various reasons - Cook Islands, Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Kiribati which has said it is formally withdrawing from the forum.

Ardern said Kiribati's exit wasn't a sign of wider disunity and she saw climate change as remaining the most important topic of discussion, RNZ reported.

She said New Zealand had allocated $1.3 billion over the next four years to support countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, half of which would go to the Pacific region.

The real work of the forum took place on Thursday when leaders went into their retreat and it wrapped up ahead of schedule, the Herald reported.

The report said leaders sacrificed tackling in depth some of the most difficult questions - from Australia's devotion to coal exports to the Solomon Islands' security pact with China - in the name of unity.

Climate change was a major focus, as leaders declared a climate emergency, agreed to pursue a limit of 1.5C warming and called for ramped up action and advocacy around the globe.

For an understanding of what's going on in the region, read 'Superpowers cast big shadow on Pacific forum' on RNZ's website.

In other political news:

The government unveiled a stack of new tools targeting gangs, including tougher penalties for drive-by shootings and stronger search and seizure powers.

Luxon described the measures as "mere tinkering". National wants to ban gang patches and gatherings and give police warrantless search powers.

"They frankly don't go far enough," he said. "Nothing in this proposal will be scaring gangs at all."

Green Party Justice Spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said she was disappointed to see Labour joining National in "knee-jerk" gang policies.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon

National Party leader Christopher Luxon. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Luxon returned from his trip to Ireland, Singapore and London, where he was on a policy-finding mission, and defended his comment about New Zealand businesses being "soft".

Speaking to the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange in London he said the New Zealand public already looked to the government for all the answers and now businesses were "getting soft" and also relied on government back-up.

Asked why he was criticising businesses while overseas, Luxon told Morning Report there was some great entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation among businesses but the government was not empowering them.

"We've got a government that frankly adds cost compliance, red tape, doesn't support small to medium enterprises whatsoever and makes their job incredibly hard," he said.

Reminded that New Zealand sat at the top of the World Bank's ease of doing business index, Luxon said in recent times the country's competitiveness and economic management had dropped in other tables.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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