The Week in Politics: Plenty of criticism over major announcements

12:43 pm on 14 April 2023
Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon

Chris Hipkins, left, and Christopher Luxon have disagreed on everything from the state of the health sector to Three Waters this week, Peter Wilson writes. Photo: RNZ

Analysis: Extending the Covid-19 isolation period for another two months creates dissent; Chris Hipkins is challenged over the state of the health system and National vows to repeal the government's revamped Three Waters.

The week began with an announcement by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins that the seven-day mandatory isolation period for Covid-19 would continue for another two months, and then be reviewed again.

He made a strong case at his post-Cabinet press conference on Tuesday, saying removing it would inevitably lead to more infected people going to work, which meant more cases and the potential for business closures.

He also referred to the stress caused by Covid-19 ripping through schools, and recalled how children had previously been rostered off because teachers were ill, and the problems that caused for parents who had to stay home to look after them.

And it's not as though cases are declining. Ministry of Health figures released on the same day Hipkins made his announcement showed there were 12,129 new cases last week - not long ago that would have been Armageddon, now it hardly rates a mention.

Also published on Tuesday was a report by Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa.

The Herald reported three alternative scenarios were used, which took into account potential differences in people's responses to removing mandatory isolation.

"In all scenarios the modelling shows an increase in infections, hospital admissions and deaths following the change in the short and longer terms," said Dr Emily Harvey, one of the report's co-authors.

The modelling showed that in the worst-case scenario, in which many people left their homes while infectious, the rise in hospital admissions and death could be higher than 35 percent - around 2100 extra hospitalisations and 225 more deaths over six months.

Another co-author, Professor Michael Plank, said it was very difficult to know what the effect of removing mandatory isolation would be because it depended on people's behaviour.

'Trust the New Zealand people'

Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon drew on his own experience with Covid to push for the removal of mandatory isolation. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

With mandatory isolation removed it would come down to trust, and that was something National's leader Christopher Luxon talked about on Morning Report on Wednesday.

He wants mandatory isolation removed now.

"I think we need to trust the New Zealand people, give them strong guidance, but we don't need mandatory isolation periods," he said.

Other countries, including Australia and Western European nations, had "moved on" and New Zealand should do the same, Luxon said.

"It's just part of how it is. They take precautions, they do their boosters, they do their rapid antigen tests, they make sure they don't go to work when they're unwell, and that's what people need to do."

Luxon gave himself as an example of how it should work. He caught Covid-19 for the second time in March, and said it was like having heavy flu for two or three days. He was RAT testing every day - the last three days he was negative, so he could have gone back to work if the seven-day period wasn't mandatory.

Luxon made a compelling case too, but trusting people to do the right thing could raise some concerns.

During the height of the pandemic, when warnings about Covid-19 were everywhere, there were numerous reports of infected people going to work and, even worse, pretending they didn't have it so they didn't have to isolate.

Everyone probably knows someone who caught Covid-19 from a work colleague who either didn't test or came to the office anyway.

It's doubtful anything has changed.

Hipkins did say the government was seeking advice on a test-to-release scheme, which is what Luxon was talking about.

He also indicated that, sooner or later, mandatory isolation would go. That could happen when the two-month extension is up.

"We are heading towards a point where Covid-19 will become normal," he said.

"I would expect, certainly by the latest at the end of winter, we will be in that zone."

When he was asked about the factors that influenced the government to keep the isolation period for now, he said pressure on the health system was "absolutely" one of them but there had to be a point where it was coped with, along with all the other illnesses.

Stuff reported businesses already suffering staff shortages were disappointed by the government's decision, and quoted some of them.

The owner of Canterbury-based The Oxford Group, Max Bremner, said the decision was "ridiculous" as hospitality businesses were already suffering from lack of staff.

Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said he understood the government's cautious approach going into winter, but businesses were disappointed there was no clear criteria laid out for when settings would be changed.

He said many countries had dropped restrictions, and he wondered how New Zealand was different.

"What consideration have they given to those examples and what modelling has come out of those countries, (that) would be useful for the government to be considering," he said.

Stuff published a chart showing the current situation in seven countries - Australia, Canada, Finland, Fiji, Japan, UK, and New Zealand.

They ranged from no isolation in Australia, Finland and the UK to entire households isolating for 14 days in Fiji. Rules differed across states in Canada, Japan still had isolation requirements and New Zealand had seven days.

Health workers wanted

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaks to the media

Chris Hipkins' claim the health sector is in better shape than three years ago was disputed this week. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

At his press conference Hipkins also announced that 32 new health worker roles had been added to the Green List that offers a straight-to-residency pathway for immigrants. That brought the total number of health roles on the list to 48.

After making that announcement, he was asked whether the health system was in better shape now than it was three years ago. He replied that he believed it was.

On Wednesday, the Herald reported a cancer patient given six to eight weeks to live was told he faced a 12-week wait to see a specialist.

That came from a report released by Health and Disability Commissioner Morag McDowell, who had found "significant delays" for patients with suspected cancer to see a specialist in the Southern DHB area between 2016 and 2022.

In the first two months of 2021, 27 patients were harmed by cancer treatment delays and three became so sick while waiting they were unfit for treatment.

The head of the nurses' union (NZNO) hit back at Hipkins over his claim about the health system being in better shape, Newshub reported.

"It clearly hasn't improved and has been bad for a number of years," said Paul Goulter.

"Covid obviously accentuated that, but the lived experience of our nurses and other healthcare workers at the front line is it's bad."

That came as nurses, midwives, healthcare assistants and kaimahi hauora were planning to hold rallies in 20 locations around the country.

Newshub said it was the first time all 57,000 NZNO members were being called on to take industrial action regardless of the areas they worked in.

"We've got workers, doctors, nurses, allied health professionals right across the board from GP practices right into hospitals, actually being flogged to death trying to maintain a system that's failing and what do we get in response? We get extensive restructuring of Te Whatu Ora but nothing coming to the front line that we can identify," Goulter said.

Luxon told Morning Report Hipkins had been "gaslighting the country" about the state of the health system.

Trying to attract health professionals by increasing the roles on the Green List was "too little, too late" and they wouldn't be here for winter anyway, he said.

Three Waters - revamp or just a rebrand?

The government still had one big announcement left for this week - the new shape of Three Waters, or Affordable Water Reforms, as it's now called.

Hipkins and Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty revealed there would be 10 new water entities, not four as originally envisaged.

Hipkins sent Three Waters back to the drawing board after becoming prime minister, not wanting to be stuck with the fierce opposition from councils right through to the election.

"We can't simply kick the can down the road and avoid making the tough decisions but we have also listened to the feedback that we've received on the water reform proposals," Hipkins said.

"We've had the feedback that the solution that we put forward was too centralised and didn't have enough provision for local voices."

Kieran McAnulty at Three Waters reforms briefing in Greytown

Kieran McAnulty joined the prime minister to unveil the changes to Three Waters. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

All the details of the revamped scheme are on RNZ's website.

Basically, it means the 10 water entities that cover the whole country will each report to a representative body, on which councils and mana whenua will be represented 50-50.

McAnulty explained that the "guts of it" was that councils individually couldn't borrow enough to fix water infrastructure, or their communities couldn't afford higher rates to meet the cost.

McAnulty said all the alternatives had been explored, even the National Party's, and they didn't stack up.

"The only way to make this work financially for ratepayers and local communities is to have a separate entity that's still owned by the council but is run independently by an independent governing body," he said.

"That's the only way that credit agencies will allow them to borrow to the extent that they need."

Asked about co-governance, an issue that bedevilled Three Waters, Hipkins said the 50-50 policy for mana whenua and councils on the representative groups wasn't co-governance.

McAnulty said he toured 55 councils and only one councillor, in New Plymouth, raised co-governance.

"The fact of the matter is that local councils work closely with mana whenua, they have similar arrangements anyway."

The government is selling the scheme as one which saves money, but it is comparing the cost with what ratepayers would have to pay if councils were left to do it.

The cost of fixing water infrastructure has been estimated at up to $185 billion over the next 30 years. The government's projections show that could mean rates and water bills increasing by as much as $9000 a year by 2051 if nothing changes.

Stuff said there would still be a hefty price tag.

"Households in most of the country will have to pay hundreds more, with some expected to fork out up to $2300 per year under the new plan," it said.

It could all become irrelevant if there's a change of government in October.

"It's a dumb policy and we're going to repeal it," said Luxon.

"All this government has done is essentially rebrand Three Waters with a different name."

*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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