Silver lining to border debacle

Roger Partridge
The NZ Herald
1 July, 2020

The proverb “All that glitters is not gold” is a line from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Any doubts about the Bard’s wisdom were dispelled this month when New Zealand’s “gold standard” quarantining was shown to be fool’s gold.

The country’s border arrangements have been so porous it will be lucky if the coronavirus has not become re-established in the community from supposedly isolated arrivals.

Even now, the Ministry of Health would have the country believe it can take comfort from the negative tests on the 2159 passengers released from quarantine in June before the testing protocols were properly implemented. Yet the negative results will only say those released do not have Covid-19 now. It will not tell us if they had it when released from managed isolation. The Ministry tests for the presence of the disease, not for antibodies in those who previously had it.

Yet Kiwis are fortunate the shortcomings in New Zealand’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) have been exposed by the escapades of the two road trippers released early from managed isolation on compassionate leave. Without their exploits, the country would have continued with a Dad’s Army approach to border protection: poorly organised, incoherent and unaccountable.

New Zealanders both deserve and need better than this. With the global battle against the coronavirus still raging, New Zealand’s Covid-free status provides enormous opportunities for the economy. It is a drawcard for the world’s best and brightest. Multinationals looking for a safe place to house their most talented, international students and researchers, film studios and international sports teams could all help breathe life back into our ailing economy. And with the economy back on its feet, this will generate the jobs Kiwis so desperately need.

But if the country is to take advantage of eradicating the virus, it must have a well-run, scalable and watertight system for managing isolation and quarantine – with the professional expertise to implement an effective user-pays mechanism for foreigners looking to take refuge here.

Prior to the coronavirus, New Zealand was able to accommodate nearly four million tourists a year. The tourism industry’s accommodation capacity exceeds 100,000 beds a night, of which over 40,000 are in hotels and more than 20,000 in large hotels. Even with 2000 or so Kiwis currently returning home each week – and about 4000 currently in MIQ – the country has the capacity for a step change in the scale of quarantining.

The problem is not capacity but capability. Following recent public revelations of shortcomings in New Zealand’s MIQ operations, on Sunday the Government released a review of New Zealand’s managed isolation and quarantine procedures. Undertaken by personnel from the Ministry of Defence, Corrections and the Police, the review found the Ministry of Health’s MIQ system was under “extreme stress.”

Less charitably, the review’s conclusions support the “shambles” description applied by Opposition politicians to the Ministry’s management of the most serious risk facing the country.

Among the criticisms are:

  • Misalignment between different agencies’ perceived responsibilities, their policies and operational realities (particularly in relation to PPE);
  • Policy decisions being made with little understanding of the operational consequences;
  • Timeliness issues on test result returns directly inhibiting forward planning;
  • Policy changes announced in Wellington without prior consultation creating frustration and potential conflict for staff on the ground;
  • A system response that is not sufficiently integrated.

It is little wonder Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield put his hand up to accept responsibility. Despite his calm and reassuring manner during lockdown – and the country’s success in eradicating the virus – the review reveals the Ministry of Health’s handling of MIQ has been woeful. The review paints a picture of systemic incompetence.

The scale of the shortcomings makes it even more astonishing that Minister of Health David Clark has not offered his resignation. The Ministry of Health has clearly struggled, but it was Clark’s role as Minister to monitor its performance, to ensure it had the resources and expertise to perform the role and to satisfy himself that checks and balances would avoid undoing the efforts of the “team of five million.”

It should not have taken the revelations of the past fortnight for the Government to evaluate whether those responsible for managing New Zealand’s most critical strategic risk were up to the task. That is surely the first rule of good governance.

Yet the review provides grounds for optimism. Just as David Clark has been replaced by Megan Woods to manage MIQ, a new lead agency looks set to take over operational responsibilities.

As the review concludes: “For the purpose of running a MIQ system, a single clear lead agency is needed, along with clear lines of accountability, protocols around inputs, and information and data sharing.” Yet, the report continues, it “does not automatically follow however that the Ministry of Health should be the agency responsible for running MIQ operations.” Indeed not.

The review proposes a series of improvements, including standardisation of procedures, increased security and better information systems and forecasting, as well as improved health oversight of all facilities.

After a fortnight or more of uncertainty, anxiety and even fear, New Zealanders should take heart from the review. And not just from being reassured that the country will be protected from the risks posed by Kiwis returning from Covid hotspots. That should always have been a given.

Instead, with robust border procedures perhaps now Kiwis can look forward to taking advantage of our Covid-free superpower. From students to sports teams, the world is clamouring at New Zealand’s door – and they are willing to pay to get in. If the Ministry’s border bungling paves the way for us to safely let them in – and at their own expense – that truly would be a silver lining.


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