Guest post: Dr Ardern knows best

The Government did a significant document dump yesterday. Of course yesterday was Friday, Parliament has risen on Thursday afternoon for a one-week recess before the final sitting block of the year, and most in the media were obsessing over the latest woes within the National Party. It was the perfect time to dump documents!

That was, until Newshub found something:

Newshub can reveal Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield advised the Government “the rest of New Zealand could move to Alert Level 1” back in September. 

The Government dropped a heap of documents related to the COVID-19 Delta outbreak response on Friday, revealing behind-the-scenes advice from the Ministry of Health that informed alert level decisions. 

In a document dated September 12, Dr Bloomfield advised Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet that Auckland could shift to alert level 3 while “the rest of New Zealand could move to Alert Level 1”. 

He advised the shift down the alert levels despite 43 new community cases of COVID-19 announced that day, more than 2260 active cases in the community, and just 63 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated. 

“I consider that the outbreak in Auckland is becoming contained,” Dr Bloomfield wrote in his advice. “Cabinet could agree to move the rest of the country to Alert Level 1, pending no escalation in Auckland’s COVID-19 risk.”

The Government did not shift the rest of the country to alert level 1, which basically lifts all restrictions except for the border. While it would have been welcome news from hospitality businesses, the rest of New Zealand has been kept at alert level 2. 

The Government did, however, shift Auckland down to alert level 3.

I can remember at the time the PMK making a comment that her Government would only allow a one level difference between Auckland and any other area, including the South Island. That was despite the growing chorus of pleas, especially from areas where there was no Covid, such as the South Island, which had been Covid-free for almost a year!

Now it has been revealed that this was the decision of the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, and counteracted the advice received from her most senior health official and advisor, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the Director-General of Health. Do the PM and her Ministers think they know more about medical issues than Dr Bloomfield and his team of health professionals from the Ministry of Health?

The consequences of keeping all of New Zealand south of Waikato in Alert Level Two have been significant. Businesses have gone under, especially in the hospitality sector. Numerous events of significance have been cancelled; the Horse of the Year in Hawke’s Bay was cancelled, costing the region an estimated $5 million in revenue. Cup and Show Week in Canterbury went ahead, but without spectators. Dozens of other sporting, cultural and community events have been cancelled, which had the PM and Cabinet accepted Dr Bloomfield’s recommendation, could have taken place. And through it all, people’s wellbeing has suffered.

Could this have been avoided, had the Government followed the advice of Dr Bloomfield and his team? I’m sure, much of it could, but instead businesses have suffered, the level of stress being experienced by business owners around the country has been magnified, and losses incurred during this period will, in all probability, never be recovered.

Sadly, the next opportunity to publicly interrogate the Prime Minister about this will be her post-Cabinet presser on Monday. And of course the major item on the agenda there will be the move to the Traffic Light system at the end of next week. So she and her Ministers are likely to escape scrutiny for a decision which has negatively affected more than two thirds of New Zealand’s population. So much for the Team of Five Million, and Be Kind!

Issues like this, and the report of Sir Brian Roche which was made public yesterday (which was highly critical of the Government’s preparedness for the Delta outbreak) reinforce the need for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Government’s complete response to the Covide-19 pandemic, covering the period from 1 January 2020. The pandemic has been the single most expensive episode in New Zealand’s history, and deserves the intensive, independent scrutiny that a Royal Commission, with wide Terms of Reference would provide. National and Act have already asked for a Royal Commission, but their calls to date have fallen on deaf ears.

Criticism of the Ardern Government has increased markedly in the last six months or so. Could an issue like Cabinet’s “we know best” decision in September actually be a rallying cry for all of those who are dissatisfied with the Government’s handling of the Covid pandemic, and in particular, the ongoing restrictions imposed by a government which has desperately clung to a level of control over its citizens, which even their top medical adviser believed was unjustified?

Kudos to Zane Small from Newshub for making this story public. Is it too much to hope that other media outlets might pick this up, and ask the Prime Minister some very direct questions?

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