The Government’s initial poor response to Covid-19 and its poor vaccine rollout – why it’s been a disaster

Over the last two months, the government has rightly encouraged New Zealanders to get vaccinated. The propaganda around this is disguising the fact the government has failed to rollout a timely and coherent vaccination programme. This failure has the potential to impact our health system and the economy in the long term.

I will review where we were 18 months ago when the world became aware of Covid-19, and where we are now.

On 31st December 2019 Taiwan’s health officials emailed the World Health Organization (WHO) for more information (Time, 19th May 2020) on what they knew of a mysterious viral outbreak in Wuhan. China slowly drip-fed information to the world about a potential viral outbreak, finally confirming this on 20th January 2020 (Sharn Markson, “What Really happened in Wuhan).

On 23rd January 2020, National Party spoken Michael Woodhouse considers “that Covid-19 should be made a notifiable disease, that travellers from affected areas should be screened and that there should be heightened health surveillance at international airports.”

On 26th January 2020, Health Minister David Clark announces public health staff will meet flights from China to ‘actively look for signs of the novel coronavirus’ (McGuinness Institute).  On 23rd February 2020 New Zealand recorded its first Covid-19 case (New Zealand Medical Journal) from Italy and this was followed up by another case from Iran on 28th February. Our government knew Covid-19 was in New Zealand as early as February 2020.

Meanwhile, the WHO continued to dither in those first few months on advising the world of the potential enormity of the problem. On 11th March 2020 the WHO finally declared a pandemic, even though it had been investigating the issue for three months.

By now the world officially knew of the pandemic. At this point, possibly earlier, the New Zealand government had the opportunity to shut its borders while it developed a plan to deal with the pandemic. But it did not. The government allowed travellers to enter New Zealand from high-risk countries like Iran and Italy until 14th March 2020, when everyone entering New Zealand had to self-isolate (McGuinness Institute). Finally, the border closed to all foreigners on 19th March 2020 (Garda World, 19th March 2020). As the pandemic and its severity developed, the border was shut to all, except New Zealanders, one month after the first case arrived in New Zealand. From 9th April 2020 everyone entering New Zealand was required to go into Managed Isolation (MIQ) facilities (McGuinness Institute). There was a three-week window where New Zealanders should have been prevented to return until the MIQ facilities were set up. The argument was that they were New Zealand citizens, and we could not deny them entry. Today, there are at least 24,000 New Zealanders stranded overseas and struggling to get MIQ places.

In this time the virus was brought into New Zealand as border control was poor, if not totally inadequate. It was a lost opportunity to protect New Zealand. Consequently, and rightly at the time, the government put New Zealand in to a harsh, but successful lockdown. Not even I disagreed with that decision at the time. It successfully eradicated the virus, but at great expense to the economy long term as billions of dollars was allocated to the Covid-19 response. We do not know for certain what the true impact on peoples’ health has been. Only time will tell as the truth slowly emerges.

New Zealand successfully emerged from the pandemic towards the end of 2020 and Labour won a massive election night victory on the back of their Covid-19 response and handling of the pandemic This was despite Labour’s woeful handling of other aspects of governance over the last three years, and as I have highlighted above, their slow and equally woeful handling of closing the borders earlier which may have prevented the harsh lockdown we endured.

The government has made many missteps over the last 12 months, mainly around MIQ and the many border breaches. Although the true failure has been the slow vaccine rollout and the massive failure to adequately increase ICU capacity and staffing, whether from within or outside of New Zealand. This has been inexcusable and poor management.

Chris Hipkins stated late last year we were at the front of the vaccine queue. As we know now; New Zealand fell to the back of the queue and were at one stage last for the vaccine rollout in the OECD. Jacinda Ardern stated on 21st June 2021 on TV3 that “It’s not at all delayed,” This is an interesting statement considering Chris Hipkins was quoted in the Dominion Post (3 July 2021) stating exactly that, and I quote from a previous blog article:

Chris Hipkins justified the shambles by stating the government felt it unethical to pay a premium to get the vaccinations earlier (a position supported by the Dominion Post editorial – 3 July 2021).”

Here we are today. We have Delta in Auckland (and now Waikato), and Auckland has been in lockdown (at level 4 and 3) for seven weeks. The country is indeed on an economic and health knife edge as the country is grossly exposed to Delta due to the current vaccination rate. Jacinda Ardern has made many statements on how wonderful the vaccination take up has been. This is pure PR spin as the country has come off an incredibly low base. Even today, only 48% of New Zealanders have been fully vaccinated and 79% have received their first jab (Ministry of Health). We are simply way behind the curve and as such, the government has been forced to shut Auckland down again. The impacts of the slow vaccine rollout are many fold.

I agree that locking down Auckland with such a low vaccine rate was necessary. Sadly, this should not have been the case if the government had pursed a quicker vaccine rollout as was promised but was never achieved. 

If Delta gets out of Auckland, which inevitably it will, the entire country will be greatly impacted via further lockdowns, economic hardship for businesses and all the associated health issues. Our health system has not been prepared for such an occurrence due to a failure to adequately increase ICU capacity. Small businesses will suffer more heartache and collapse.

In the last two months 8,000 jobs have been lost to the latest lockdown, and the hospitality industry is slowly collapsing.  This carries further financial burden on the economy as the government must support those losing their jobs, let alone supporting businesses. Finally, “based on cost estimates developed by ASB during the previous lockdown, having Auckland at alert level 3 and the rest of the country at alert level 2 costs the economy about $440 million per week – or 0.15 per cent of GDP” (NZ Herald 15 February 2021). In other words, our economy is being hammered. The impact of this will likely last at least two decades.

Thus, the consequence of the delayed vaccine rollout, our initial poor response and the numerous lockdowns, all interlinked in their own ways, have had, and will have long term implications for New Zealand. The government’s current spin for people to be vaccinated is nothing more than a cover for their initial failures to rollout the vaccine programme earlier this year. They had the time and resources to do so but chose not to. That is an indictment of failure that now has major ramifications for the country. We should not be in this position.

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