The Week in Politics: Pandemic response under stress

2:30 pm on 16 April 2021

By Peter Wilson*.

Analysis - A startling revelation shows up cracks in the testing regime just as the vaccine rollout comes under scrutiny, and National faces another bout of leadership speculation.

Chris Hipkins gets his first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

Chris Hipkins after getting his first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government's pandemic response was under stress this week as a series of revelations raised questions about the integrity of its systems.

The most surprising was an admission by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's chief executive Carolyn Tremain. She told a parliamentary select committee that an MIQ security guard infected with Covid-19 had not been tested since November.

Border workers are supposed to be tested every two weeks. Tremain could not say how many MIQ workers had missed tests.

Keeping records is an employer's responsibility, in this case First Security which is contracted to provide MIQ guards.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was "a very particular circumstance… the individual was lying to their employer".

National's leader Judith Collins said she was floored by the news. "To find out (the guard) hasn't been tested for months and he's the staff member who has got Covid-19? It's just unfathomable," she said.

The opposition's Covid-19 response spokesman, Chris Bishop, described the news as "quite staggering".

It put the spotlight on testing records and why it wasn't picked up. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said there was a national register but not all contractors used it. He said he was signing an order to make it mandatory from 27 April.

"I would have thought that was something we should have nailed in March 2020," said Auckland University professor of medicine Des Gorman.

Hipkins said the case seemed to be an outlier. Records showed 90 percent of border staff were tested within required timeframes. About 87 percent of the other 10 percent usually got a test within a day or two of the timeframe.

He also revealed that 88.5 per cent of MIQ workers had received at least one dose of vaccine, which meant 513 had not. About a quarter of them were due to get their jab in the coming days, he said.

The New Zealand Herald published an exclusive report about "high priority" vacancies listed on the public service's internal site. They included a programme co-ordinator, two service design advisers and several "sequencing" managers for the vaccination rollout.

The report said it called into question the government's readiness to roll out the vaccine. The ministry said the programme sometimes demanded specialist skills.

Bishop said it was an indication that all was not well. "The real question is why wasn't the government organised enough to recruit these urgent and high priority roles well in advance of now? It is a deeply concerning sign that the vaccination programme is in trouble," he said.

National Party MP Chris Bishop

National Party MP Chris Bishop. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Doctors were saying this week they were still in the dark about whether they would be helping with the vaccine rollout, RNZ reported. College of GPs medical director Dr Bryan Betty said doctors had not been told whether they would be needing to make space for appointments. "At the moment we're a bit unclear as to what role general practitioners will play."

The Herald's Derek Cheng assessed the situation this way: "The impression that's hard to shake is that we're being told everything is hunky dory, while behind the scenes the government is scrambling to see if it actually is."

After numerous media requests and demands from the opposition, the government on Wednesday came out with a vaccination target. The ministry said that by 30 June it expected just over a million people should have received their first jab. Almost half of them would be from the Auckland region.

It has consistently played down the need for targets, not wanting to risk a crisis of expectation, and events in Australia have shown why.

"A quick look across the ditch shows what can happen when things go really wrong," wrote Stuff's Luke Malpass.

Australia's rollout had been progressing more quickly than New Zealand's, helped by having more vaccine on hand, but late last week it was dramatically impacted by a blood clot scare that caused the government to suspend the AstraZeneca part of the rollout.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison admitted that not all Australians would be vaccinated by the end of the year. The government abandoned its targets and said it was not planning to announce any more.

Australia has now secured more of the Pfizer vaccine that New Zealand is using, but it won't arrive until the end of the year.

Australia's McKell Institute suggested that even before the AstraZeneca crisis the vaccine programme needed to go 15 times faster to hit the now abandoned targets, Malpass reported.

The government's response to nearly a week of negative media came on Thursday, through a press conference called by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Everyone over 16 would be able to get both shots of vaccine before the end of the year, he said. He was confident about that.

From July, people could go to "super clinics" or mobile clinics or visit their doctor (that might have been news to the GPs).

He said the beginning of the rollout had been relatively slow but it was ramping up fast. There was plenty of detail in the media briefing as Bloomfield sought to allay impressions that planning had been inadequate.

The "super clinics" would be able to vaccinate up to 20,000 people in a day and there wouldn't be any need to book.

"I'm really confident the health system can do it," he said.

With the government under pandemic pressure, it should have been a really good week for National. It wasn't, because the Herald stirred up a fresh bout of leadership speculation.

National MPs Simon Bridges and Chris Luxon.

National MPs Simon Bridges and Chris Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

It reported former leader Simon Bridges was not denying discussing a leadership ticket with Chris Luxon, the former Air New Zealand chief executive who is now a National first term MP.

"In a masterclass of cryptic answers on his way into a caucus meeting yesterday, Bridges first said 'it's just chatter'," Claire Trevett wrote. "However, when asked if he discussed it with Luxon he replied: 'I talk with lots of colleagues, I can't be expected to remember everything I say'."

Bridges said he supported his leader Judith Collins "at this time".

It was enough for the Herald to run a page lead story with the headline "Bridges fights fire with smoke".

Stuff picked it up the next day and talked to Collins. She said leadership rumours were natural for an opposition party after an election defeat. ""It is very easy to have a bit of rumour making, a bit of mischief making, but actually everyone is onside and I have the 100 percent support of my caucus," she said.

Political commentator Ben Thomas took it seriously. "The longer leaks and rumours continue, the more National's stock plummets," he said in an article published by Stuff. "This is a hugely wasted opportunity for the opposition to appear like a credible government in waiting."

National leader Judith Collins 17/02/21

Judith Collins says she has "100 percent support" from her caucus. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Other developments this week:

The government announced a ban on live cattle exports by sea, with a two-year period to phase it out. Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said it was an animal welfare issue and the trade was a threat to New Zealand's reputation. Statistics show more than 100,000 breeding cattle were shipped to China last year valued at $255.89 million.

The Electoral Commission referred to the police three donations to the Māori Party of over $30,000 because they were not declared within 10 working days of being received. Party co-leaders Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer directed questions to the executive, saying they had sought assurances everything was above board.

Speaker Trevor Mallard released proposals for new buildings on Parliament's precinct to house MPs and ministers, solving the overcrowding problem which has forced leases to be taken out on private office space nearby. Mallard said he hoped they would cost less than $250 million. He also hoped they would be ready by the 2026 election.

* 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.