Matthew Hooton: Wheels come off Govt’s spin machine


Let’s start by being charitable. If the Government wanted to spread Omicron through the community as fast as possible, its actions over the last six weeks have been exemplary.

Covid Minister Chris Hipkins’ so-called Omicron “plan” — I use the inverted commas so as not to insult readers the way politicians do when using that word — was released on December 21. It was all fence and no ambulance, being entirely about trying to keep Omicron out.

Back then, everyone already knew how contagious Omicron was. On December 21, there were a record 4306 new cases in New South Wales, a record 154 in South Australia and a near-record 1245 in Victoria. In all three states, the trend line was already close to vertical. The Northern Hemisphere was doing even worse, given winter.

Hipkins knew — or should have known — that New Zealand had only around 100 available ICU beds. He knew — or should have known — that New Zealand’s capacity to do accurate but uncomfortable Nasal polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests was just 40,000 a day.

The Government’s inexplicable decision to grant Asia Pacific Healthcare Group (APHG) a monopoly for PCR tests meant Hipkins understood — or should have — that we have limited capacity to carry out equally accurate but more comfortable saliva PCR tests, such as those offered by APHG’s competitor, Rako Science.

Meanwhile, Hipkins was aware — or should have been — that the Government had only 3 million rapid antigen test (RAT) kits, and no more than 3 million on order. He certainly knew he had just lifted his ban on importing, manufacturing, selling or even using RATs in New Zealand.

This was all great for APHG, 96 per cent owned by the Superannuation Fund and Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, but not so much for its competitors or the public.

The Government then disappeared. The Opposition claimed it had gone on holiday, which sounded hyperbolic but turned out to be true.

Between Christmas and New Year, Omicron continued exploding in Australia while DJ Dimension became New Zealand’s first community case.

A prudent government wanting to keep Omicron out and having made no plan for an outbreak would have temporarily closed the border and got working on one.

Instead, the only response was to increase the Government’s RAT order, but to just 6 million new kits.

Only after inquiries by Newshub’s Michael Morrah was this increased to 20 million on January 7. Three days later, on January 10, the Ministry of Health was still saying the 20 million RATs would arrive in batches over — wait for it — the next six months. The same day, the ministry said “the role of RATs as part of the public health response has not yet been determined”.

Meanwhile, private businesses — knowing the Beehive and bureaucracy were anti-RAT for so long — got on with ordering them for their workers as part of their business continuity plans.

Even last week, as daily infections peaked at around 4000 even in South Australia, as record numbers of Covid-positive people arrived at our border, and as more Omicron cases began popping up in the community, the Government was still not working on the public-health response with officials, but was instead at a Labour Party strategy meeting in Taranaki.

A government wanting to stop spread would have cancelled major events like the three-day Soundsplash music festival in Hamilton. Instead, the Ardern Government — which since September has had a weirdly specific fixation on ensuring music festivals proceed — stood by, deciding only after the festival that Omicron was spreading in the community sufficiently to justify moving to red. The release of information about Soundsplash-linked cases was delayed.

Red, of course, is far more liberal than the old levels system, which failed to eliminate the less contagious Delta strain, even after the four-month Auckland lockdown.

Again, to be charitable, what would a government do if it wanted Omicron to spread through the community as fast as possible? It would encourage 8000 teenagers and early-20s from all around the North Island to gather at a music festival, thrash about together in mosh pits and sleeping bags, just before returning home to start school.

If spread was the goal, the Government deserves a gold star. New Omicron cases have risen more than five-fold over the last four days, at least as fast as in Australia in December.

Looking ahead, the Government has been advised daily cases could reach 50,000 by Waitangi Day, just nine days away. Luckily, the Prime Minister made a brief visit there last week to record a TV special for our national day.

The Government also managed to issue a shopping list of pharmaceuticals and other items we should stockpile, but one more appropriate for someone on the Prime Minister’s $471,000 salary than for a middle-class Kiwi family, let alone someone on the minimum or living wage.

On Tuesday, the first Cabinet meeting was finally held. It considered new “guidance” around masks to come into force nine days later, which was deemed worthy of an announcement by no less than the Prime Minister from the Podium of Truth.

Tuesday’s meeting also considered a new “three-phase plan”, first signalled by the Prime Minister on Sunday. It had all the appearance of being bashed out on Monday, consisting of a single piece of paper largely outlining decisions yet to be made, and Ardern’s most junior Cabinet Minister, a first-term MP, was put up to launch it.

The Ministry of Health, having finally decided it wanted as many RATs as possible, moved to stop their distribution to organisations which had ordered them as part of their business continuity plans. The ministry will instead ensure RATs get to the “right” businesses, as if health bureaucrats really understand which organisations are essential to maintaining basic infrastructure and food distribution as hundreds of thousands of us get sick with Omicron in the coming weeks.

Through all this, the Prime Minister and her ministers tell us New Zealand’s Covid response has been the best in the world.

That was true through 2020, after a bunch of bureaucrats and billionaires got together in March to pressure her to close the border, cancel her 7000-strong indoor Christchurch memorial service and start taking Covid seriously. It has not been true since.

The Government stands accused of laziness, negligence, incompetence, panicked authoritarianism and opacity over its response to Omicron. It is far too charitable to think it planned any of this. The wheels have come off its spin machine.

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