At the outbreak of World War 2 the country’s first Labour Party Prime Minister Michael Savage declared that wherever Britain goes, New Zealand goes. At time it was a powerful rallying call and it happened. But 2021 is not 1939.
I’m very critical of the performance and value of external business consultants in our health system. This is born out of over 30 years of observation and experience. They have rarely justified their pay cheque and often left a destructive legacy.
But occasionally I can be pleasantly surprised by their work. A case in point is empirical information published on LinkedIn by Nick Davis, Director at MartinJenkins.
The most recent example is what has happened in Britain since the Boris Johnson government irresponsibly and callously abrogated its responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic response by shifting it on to the population itself.
In July it opened up the country with minimal restrictions in while the Delta variant of Covid-19 was still rampant despite rising vaccination rates. One could describe this as an application of accountability-reduction theory.
UK, Boris and pandemic response
Davis has provided a succinct data based assessment of the outcome to date:
He draws upon the ONS Infection Survey. ONS is the Office for National Statistics which is the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics. Its infection studies are jointly led with the Department for Health and Social Care working with the Oxford University and Lighthouse laboratory to collect and test samples.
The UK has experienced three very long national pandemic waves due to prevarications of its government, initially beginning with ill-fated ‘herd immunity’ but then shifting to mitigation including suppression. In contrast with New Zealand, lockdowns were not fast and hard with the outcome being that they were much longer and debilitating. This led to the per capita equivalent of over 10,000 more deaths in New Zealand.
The ONS study reveals that prevalence of Covid-19 in England (comprising around 84% of the UK population) has now exceeded the previous Wave 3 peak in July, with 1.6% of the population actively infected. The last time Covid-19 prevalence was this high in England was at the peak of Wave 2 in January 2021.
Fortunately, due to good vaccination rates amongst 18+ year olds, the number of hospitalisations and deaths is well short of the January peaks. But these peaks were massive, among the very highest in the world. UK hospitals and intensive care units are still in for a “torrid winter” with many already operating at or near full capacity, and demand also high for non-Covid reasons.
Covid hospital admissions in the UK are presently running at around 5,500 per week and deaths at 820 per week and rising. With a UK population of over 67 million, for New Zealand this would translate to around 410 hospitalisations and 61 deaths per week. For us this would be disastrous.
Davis correctly concludes that much of this was avoidable if the UK government had put more mitigations in place for schools and children prior to the return from summer holidays, including offering vaccinations to children to limit transmission.
Covid case rates in school-age children have exploded in recent weeks, with new cases for 10-14 year olds exceeding more than 1.5% per day.
This equates to a tenth of the school roll contracting the virus every week. In some districts, the infection rate exceeded 4%. The number of cases in under-14 year olds in England now exceeds one million since the beginning of the pandemic.
Infection rates are also rising again in older age-groups, initially in the 40-44 age group, and now in the 65 to 69 age group as transmission often flows from school children to parents and family members.
This avoidable impact was contrary to claims used to justify the removal of restrictions in schools that schools would not play a role in community transmission. These claims could not have been more wrong.
Instead the removal of school restrictions allowed children to become infected without the option of protection by vaccination. Only over 16 year olds could be vaccinated in England, and this group was offered the vaccine too late to protect them in the current school term (recently lowered to 12 years).
This removal also contributed to high case rates generally, which is a likely factor behind the current spike in Covid prevalence and putting other people at risk.
Could Aotearoa follow Britain
Until recently what has characterised New Zealand’s pandemic response has been the preparedness of government to follow the advice of experts, including but not confined to epidemiologists and modellers. In contrast, what has characterised the UK government’s response has been the preparedness not to follow this advice.
This changed with the New Zealand government’s sudden recent abandonment of the elimination strategy (zero tolerance of community transmission) at least in Auckland to date. This was contrary to the advice of the experts who had served Aotearoa so well and without prior engagement with them.
This backdown is terrible. But, to date, the Jacinda Ardern government is not being cavalier over responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the public in the same way as the Johnson government has been. However, as our government becomes more insular in what advice it accepts and more influenced by short-term business interests, the risk of becoming cavalier increases.
This is more so because, while improving, New Zealand’s vaccination rates are behind the UK’s reflecting the latter’s significant advantage for earlier supply as a much larger economy and closer proximity to vaccine producers.
Should Aotearoa go where Britain goes today compared with back in 1939? Absolutely not but we should be worried about the potential increased risk given the marginalising of publicly trusted expert advice.
Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion