Covid 19 coronavirus: Reaction v proaction; how the Govt could’ve gone harder and earlier

OPINION

The Government’s Covid-response may be world-leading but it continues to be reactionary when it should be more proactive.

Long is the list of requests for Government action from public health experts – Otago University Professor Michael Baker in particular – since the pandemic hit these shores.

Eliminate instead of flatten the curve. Far more testing than was happening during lockdown. Compulsory quarantine for overseas arrivals. Asymptomatic testing of border-facing workers. Digitally-assisted contact-tracing.

In each case, the Government moved fast enough to put New Zealand in the enviable position of having no Covid-19 ravaging our communities. A simple glance at Europe or North America shows what might have otherwise been.

But action has followed weeks, sometimes months, of persistent pleas from experts, and often only after a fresh Covid-19 scare.

The latest case is the mandating of face masks on all domestic flights and public transport. Baker was calling for this months ago, first at alert level 2, and then at level 1.

The Government made it compulsory at level 2 in response to the 179-case Auckland cluster.

And yesterday Cabinet approved it for level 1. From Thursday, you’ll be required to wear a mask on public transport in Auckland and on any domestic flight.

This wasn’t changed because of new health advice. It was in reaction to the community scare last week which – partly through luck – saw a lack of spread to other regions.

If this case – or any of the eight border incursions in recent months – had led to a surge in new cases, then mask-wearing could have made a significant difference.

Take the Auckland August cluster, which only spread as far as the Waikato but still ended up with 179 cases. Covid-19 was partly carried all over the city by non-mask-wearing passengers on public transport.

Or the Defence Force cluster, which could have erupted – and luckily didn’t – after a potentially infectious person flew from Auckland to Wellington while not wearing a mask.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern framed Cabinet’s new mask mandate as the Government going further than official health advice.

The latest guidance, she said, was following the August cluster and supported mandatory mask use – but only temporarily.

It’s unclear how that sits with health chief Ashley Bloomfield, who said last week that there was a clear case for mandating mask use at level 1 and the final decision was up to the Government.

Ardern also framed it in a way that would have been equally valid months ago – that a mask on your face is a small price to pay to help ensure the ongoing freedoms we’re all enjoying in a Covid-ravaged world.

The upshot is that Ardern’s rhetoric of “going hard and early” is open to interpretation, and regarding many aspects of the response, the Government could have definitely gone harder and earlier.

Cabinet may have finally realised this.

Baker’s recommendation is for nationwide masks for public transport at level 1, and Ardern indicated that Cabinet might oblige.

He has been calling for compulsory QR code scanning in high-risk places – poorly ventilated, indoors, with people in close proximity – and Cabinet will make a call on this shortly.

His latest recommendation – along with Associate Professor Nick Wilson – is for a risk-based “traffic light” border system instead of a one-size-fits-all approach – a feature of Taiwan’s world-leading response.

Ardern has previously been lukewarm on the idea, saying it could infringe on Kiwis’ right to come home.

But yesterday she took a more agreeable approach, saying it was specifically being considered.

She was at pains to point out that the Covid-response is continually being improved, and it continues to be the envy of most of the rest of the world.

Both of which are true.

It’s also true that our response would have been even better – and would be better – if we made improvements based on objective merit rather than in response to fresh Covid scares.

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