Covid 19 coronavirus – Opinion: Left in the dark on so many aspects of the Covid response

OPINION:

When he got vaccinated recently, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said he was “clearly conscious” of the public being in the dark about vaccination targets.

He was being grilled about why the Government wasn’t releasing daily dose numbers or targets, despite starting the weekly update with the number of doses administered the previous day.

Daily data would be released soon, he said, and the Ministry of Health has since obliged – but the data is only dose numbers from the previous week.

That doesn’t score very high on the scale of usefulness when we’re trying to gauge where we’re meant to be today, and where we want to be tomorrow, next week and next month. The ministry has released a broad roll-out plan, but it’s just thrown up more questions than answers, including: “Are we miles behind schedule?”.

So we remain largely in the dark on the current status of the roll-out, except for proclamations from Hipkins and health boss Ashley Bloomfield that things are going very well, and we’re more or less where we want to be.

Except that two security guards at the Grand Millennium MIQ facility have tested positive for Covid in the last week, and neither had received a single vaccine dose. MIQ workers are meant to have had at least one by the end of March – almost two weeks ago.

Three weeks ago, in answer to a Parliamentary written question, Hipkins said 91 per cent of the 15,000-strong border workforce – including MIQ, airports, ports – had received their first dose.

A few days later, Bloomfield said we were at 93 per cent of the overall roll-out target, and that increased to 95 per cent last week, according to Hipkins.

This morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told TVNZ that only 79 per cent of First Security MIQ staff have had a vaccine jab.

By this afternoon, Ardern came out with specific MIQ vaccination data: 3472 out of 4010 MIQ workers, or 86 per cent, have had at least one jab.

This followed the big reveal that one of the security guards – who’s meant to be tested every fortnight – hadn’t had a test since at least mid-March before his positive test last week.

The PM’s numbers beg the question: If we have that data, why not release it routinely – rather than in response to a border failure – so we can see how it’s all going?

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.

The vaccine targets aren’t the only aspect of the response where we’ve been given unverifiable Government proclamations.

The security guards are two of three cases among Grand Millenium workers since March 21. When the first case – a cleaner – emerged, Hipkins said the last review into safety practices showed only “mild to moderate” issues.

The Health Ministry then refused to release this review, saying it would only be done after “commercial and privacy considerations” were worked through.

Hipkins then revealed that the link between two infected returnees at the Grand Mecure in Auckland might have been a ventilation shaft, but a request for reports on MIQ ventilation was met with this from the ministry: “As it is ongoing, we are not able to release it at this time.”

Such issues are far from new.

Last June after the Government announced routine testing of returnees in MIQ on day three and day 12, the Herald asked for these testing numbers for three weeks with no response. It turned out it wasn’t being done.

The whole testing debacle was then examined in the highly critical Simpson-Roche report, which was finished in September. But the Government only released it the week before Christmas – and after Parliament had risen for the year.

Similarly the Kitteridge report – which said the response was too reactive – into the August cluster last year was finished in October, but only released a fortnight ago. This enabled the Government to say “everything’s fine now” rather than saying, in October: “Here are the gaps, and we want you to hound us on our progress to fill them all in.”

The grand context of all this is, of course, the lack of community transmission in New Zealand, where we have enjoyed relative liberation compared to the constant yo-yoing in and out of lockdown for most people in the western world.

But that doesn’t mean we should be left in the dark.

Especially given our critical position in the Covid fight with the vaccine roll-out, the starting of the transtasman bubble, the Covid variants that seem to be more resistant to existing vaccines, and the ongoing conundrum of how to handle returnees from high-risk countries – especially India – as more MIQ space is freed up.

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