GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – The truth behind the Government’s delta reversal in New Zealand

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On 2 November BusinessDesk published my article on the politics of pandemic traffic lights:

At the time I thought that the traffic lights system had been initiated by the Ministry of Health (experts outside the Ministry were not supportive). Subsequently, however, according to senior Health Ministry officials privately, it came from the Prime Minister’s department.

This helps explain the working it out as you go along approach that is causing confusion among many. Jacinda Ardern’s claim of the system being world leading is overcooked.

The traffic lights system, commencing on 3 December, was described by me as a form of branding for a new narrative to justify the Government’s surprise abandoning of the elimination strategy towards the delta variant of Covid-19.

I attributed the abandonment decision to government over-confidence over the effectiveness of the progress towards elimination of delta. Despite contrary advice from its modellers, this led to the earlier than expected lowering of Auckland’s alert level from 4 to 3. This was followed by political panic when, surprising to government but unsurprisingly to experts, daily infections quickly surged upwards.

My analysis was based on the data and the absence of evidence to confirm an alternative credible explanation. Now Newsroom investigative journalist Marc Daalder has published an excellent article (29 November) based on official documents about the decision-making process that reinforce but provide more context to my my conclusion:

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20 September and 4 October – what went wrong

In his words, Daalder describes “what went wrong” between 20 September and 4 October when New Zealand went from being on the verge of eliminating Delta to admitting defeat.

On 19 September Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield optimistically advised Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins that infection numbers in Auckland “were falling steadily” and almost all of the clusters had been ringfenced. This was just over a month after the whole country had moved to Level 4.

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Bloomfield was confident that the outbreak in Auckland was contained. Peaking on 28 August, “…daily numbers [were] generally decreasing or remaining static at low levels as the expected tail of the outbreak manifests.” Out of the 19 known clusters, all but two of were considered dormant or contained.

The two clusters of concern were “complex and need to continue to be monitored closely, particularly with respect to welfare and social compliance issues”. However, this did not deter Bloomfield from comfortably recommending a move to Level 3 for Auckland (and from Level 3 to 2 for the rest of New Zealand).

At this point the Director-General and Cabinet were expecting a long delta tail but was confident of returning to zero cases. Further, they expected the elimination strategy to continue after border reopening in 2022 (remembering that elimination is zero tolerance, not zero cases).

Two weeks later “Cabinet threw in the towel on elimination.”

Bloomfield’s triumphant paper was taken by Hipkins to Cabinet the same day. The Minister did concede to Cabinet it was “theoretically possible” that elimination might not be achieved. However, elimination would continue to be maintained into the future including in a new protection framework that was being considered by officials.

So the objective was to eliminate the Auckland outbreak and then move to the new framework once vaccinations were sufficiently high.

As an afterthought it was noted that officials were also working on a transition scenario where the current outbreak was not eliminated and there was a gradual move into the new framework while vaccination rates increased.

But everything pointed to a diminishing outbreak that was fully under control. Cabinet believed delta elimination was at its “fingertips”. Consequently it was confident about lowering Auckland to Level 3. After all, this is what had happened in Australia outside New South Wales and Victoria.

Ignoring red flags

But Daalder points out that there red flags were raised. The Ministry’s Director of Pacific Health warned a parliamentary select committee on 28 September that the virus was settling into “a gang environment and the homeless” which were less likely to be trusting of the health system.

Daalder correctly observes that if, as it appeared, the albeit declining daily infections were in transitional housing and gangs, it should have suggested possible more widespread and undetected transmission.

Separately there was also a warning from an independent advisory group chaired by Sir Brian Roche in a 23 September letter and report to government. While focused more on safely reopening the country’s borders, Roche also highlighted were shortcomings in the outbreak response. These included a shortfall in proper engagement of Māori and Pacific providers.

Cabinet and the Director-General had forgotten their previous powerful and evidence-based message to the public that people movement is critical to eliminating, containing or spreading Covid-19. Level 4 was about minimising people movement as much as practical; Level 3 allowed for a reasonable amount of increased people movement.

From optimism to pessimism: a new narrative

Unfortunately the Government was slow to realise what was happening. On 29 September, five days before the Prime Minister ambiguously abandoned it for Auckland, her Director-General told Newsroom that zero cases were still possible. That same day the unexpected shuddering spike of 45 infections occurred.

In the subsequent days before 4 October, Bloomfield’s narrative changed to a pessimistic tone. He referred to the risk of South Auckland sub-clusters not being contained, delta’s circulation in communities that face complex socio-economic issues, and possible slowing down of contact tracing.

The rest as they say is history. On 4 October Ardern was ambiguous about the future of elimination in Auckland. Presumably her ambiguity was because she and her cabinet colleagues were still trying to work out how best to publicly explain the sudden reversal. Its abandonment was confirmed seven days later.

Falseness of public non-compliance

Daalder makes several other pertinent observations. These include increasing pressure by some businesses to lower to Level 2 (the Government’s response was to gradually reduce restrictions under Level 3), increased daily infections were greater than Government expected, increased sub-clusters and unlinked cases, public health teams were “run into the ground”, and a workforce that was “stretched, tired and fatigued.”

He then addresses the claim now being made for the first time by Hipkins and others that public sentiment may have been turning against the lockdown. He concludes that the evidence for this claim was “thin”. Polling from the Government at the time found common emotions had gone from “neutral” and “joy” in July to “neutral” and “sad” in September, though “neutral” was still the most common.

Further, actual compliance had increased within Auckland. Aucklanders were more compliant than the rest of the country when it came to staying home when sick and to using the tracer app. There was also broad support for masks.

Following its abandonment of elimination in Auckland, the Government claimed that lockdown breaches were behind the decision to lower its alert level and the subsequent delta upsurge. But, according to Daalder, the evidence says the opposite. Instead, lowering Auckland’s alert level thereby increasing people movement was largely responsible for the upsurge.

Joyless vindication

If the Government had stuck to their modellers advice Auckland would have been in Level for two weeks or so longer but most likely out of Level lockdown by the end of October.

As a result much fewer Aucklanders would have been infected and hospitalised (to a lesser extent fewer deaths). There would have been much less stress and pressure on hospitals and the health workforce.

Do I feel joy in this vindication of my analysis published by BusinessDesk? Absolutely not! Am I disappointed by the Government’s duplicity in obscuring its error? Very much so!

 

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

25 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve always thought September was the day things were going to go tits up. The public announcements at the time didn’t seem to ring true and it started to feel like ‘officials’ had been attending courses at the Google and Facebook Medical School. PR spin and marketing the message is now more important than anything.
    Daalder’s Nov29 analysis seems to gel with Idiot/Savant’s Nov26 analysis as well.

    The best that can be said is that an alternative gummint (under Collins) would probably have been far far worse.

        • Unfortunately, yes it seems.
          Strangely though, I’m not sure Saint Ash is the problem in this case (although it most often is elsewhere in the PS). Just that he, like a few Labour munsters with various portfolios have malfunctioning bullshit detectors. I fear that in MoH’s case, the problem lays with a few of Saint Ash’s immediate underlings. Meanwhile MoH worker bees do the best they can.
          Que sera sera. It probably just has to play out, is my reckons in this space going forward, but the movers and shakers in gummint and the senior and muddle management ranks of the PS should look inward when it comes to trying to understand why Jo voter is losing faith in them, and indeed in deokrissy.
          Sad shit really. I gave up feeling embarrassed and sorry for the lot of ’em, even IF that sounds arrogant.
          There are however the “green shoots” of hope and changey stuff on the horizon. It’s unlikely however the people that’ll effect changey stuff will be any of the current crop in the halls of power at parly armint or sitting on their fat arses in government departmental buildings (that we the people don’t even own anymore with a few exceptions)

  2. “The traffic lights system was described by me as a form of branding for a new narrative.” And there you have it folks, the modus operandi of Jacinda’s glorious govt. Stuff to brand, stuff to announce, stuff to make us believe this govt is one of action and results. Remember the other great branding classic…Shovel Ready? Big announcements but nothing ready. Jacinda from Announcements! More announcements soon.

    • Do you not think a peak of just over 200 daily cases and only 36 deaths for Delta is a ‘result’ for this government? Because I think it’s a hell of a good result. Did you see our graph compared to NSW on TV the other night? The difference is night and day. For all the people screaming about no action and little to show, open your eyes. There’s been a hell of a lot of work put into our covid response, and the results are up there with the best in the world. Some people don’t like to acknowledge that as it doesn’t fit their narrative.

      As for Ian’s article, I don’t for a moment buy into this ‘a few more weeks in level 4 and we would have eliminated delta’ narrative. After the initial 2 week bell curve, the tail made barely any appreciable decline over the next two weeks.

      And the last paragraph under the heading “the falseness of public non-compliance” is a load of rubbish. Under level 4 people following the rules were only mingling at their essential workplaces and at the supermarket. Ashley Bloomfield stated at one of the press conferences that there had been no confirmed transmition between people at supermarkets. Transmission at workplaces was minimal as well. No, the bulk of the new daily cases in the second half of our level 4 lockdown were households mingling against level 4 rules. And the truth of the matter is that more weeks in level 4 were not going to stop this and thus Delta would not be eliminated.

      Of course cases increased after we went to level 3. That’s bloody obvious and nobody argued they wouldn’t. The point was we were reaching high vaccination levels and so an increase in case numbers didn’t result in a comparative increase in severe disease. The results so far prove this to be correct.

      • I think they are outstanding results.
        What would make them better would be if the German would apologise for every single opinion he has made on this site.

      • Of course NZ has performed much better than NSW. NSW dithered for some time while NZ was fast and hard for around the first month. This made a huge difference for the better. The better comparison is Australia outside NSW and Victoria.

        I would place much more reliance on the empirical investigation of Mark Daaldler than the hearsay assertions of Brad Cooke.

  3. Now who’d have thought that an ‘outlaw motorcycle gang’ wouldn’t comply with the lockdown rules? LOL

    Hipkins and Blomfield need to get out more.

  4. Sad. Get the feeling that many in NZ live in their own hype and marketing bubble and have no interest in science or truth, when there is easy decisions and popularity to be sought after. Now there seems to be a problem with massive group-think in various groups.

  5. The Auckland clusters and long lockdown was just a convenient excuse for the Government’s inevitable step-back from its elimination stance.

  6. Where the problems lie with our health spending….

    Cronyism, budget being swallowed up by big5 consultants…. not exactly what people were hoping for in the age of Covid and the government transformation!

    “Health system reform: ‘Transition Unit’ to spend $18m on consultants this year
    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/health-system-reform-transition-unit-to-spend-18m-on-consultants-this-year/CE5E2VE5AUAKNUUNTGW7FUN46I/

    “The special government unit established to overhaul the country’s health system will spend $18 million, 69 per cent of its $25.96m budget this year, on contractors and consultants, its director has estimated.

    In addition, the Transition Unit’s head, Stephen McKernan, confirmed the total outlay on contractors and consultants, from the division’s inception in June, 2020 to Oct 11, 2021, was $10.4m.

    The single largest beneficiary of the contractor spending to date is Ernst and Young (EY), where McKernan is a partner.

    The figures were released under the provisions of the Official Information Act.”

  7. Labour – Caring (or pretending that they do) / woke / at the end of the day just flat out useless.

    National – Don’t really care anything other than making themselves and the other members of their golf club rich(er) / not woke / not quite as useless.

    ACT – See ‘The Emperor’ in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

    The Greens – Woke / more woke / useless / dangerous (think letting your 5 year old vote).

    Conclusion – We are fucked.

    • Nice summary, I’m not sure if there will be a, “brain drain” but already I see some evidence of a, “sain drain” as some decide to put this current madness behind them and look for better overseas. Wish them well but not sure they will find it much better elsewhere.

    • @ James B.
      “Conclusion – We are fucked.”
      Well, we could certainly be forgiven for thinking so, that’s for sure.
      But we’re not. We’re not fucked at all. We live on a beautiful few islands which are safe and rich in vital resources and we have a primary industry that can guarantee money coming in so long as their’s an apatite and if we could just get our hands on that money before institutionalised fucking crooks do we’d be rich, secure and happy.
      Our gubbimint reps stalk about looking like they’ve seen helen clark and jim bolger cavorting naked in a park under the pale moonlight. They desperately try to convince us all in an enduring fashion that it’s just soooooooo difficult for them to managed such a hard wee country in such desperate times as these.
      Surely? You know as well as I, that, that’s all wank. Our labour gubbimint works hardest at trying to convince us all that life in AO/NZ is tewibbly difficult and they do their very widdle best at keeping us safe, well, powerless and penniless while a small van load of crooks siphon off billions they never earned.
      And now? There’s the hilariously satanic fucking scam that’s selling AO/NZ to yank billionaires.
      Are we fucked? Or are we ignorant, gutless and stupid?
      To answer my own question; I’d say no, we’re not. But there’s a definite problem with us as a people. There is a definite and chronic lack of healthy skepticism and direct action. It’s as if we’ve been brainwashed.
      Are we breathing in a miasma of political brain farts we think of as clever, intelligent and insightful when, in reality they’re just blasts of wank?
      I worked on a film a few years ago titled ‘Z for Zachariah starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine and Margo Robbie. It was directed by Craig Zobel and it was, I thought, brilliant. It was a relatively small production so we all got to know one another quite well while on set. I was talking to Craig about his other film titled ‘Compliance’ and it was a fascinating story.
      “Compliance is a 2012 American thriller film written and directed by Craig Zobel, based upon a strip search phone call scam that took place in Mount Washington, Kentucky, in which the caller, posing as a police officer, convinced a restaurant manager to carry out unlawful and intrusive procedures on an employee.”
      Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compliance_(film)
      In politics, as in film, when you think your mind’s your own, it isn’t.
      When we’re told that that it is, what it is? It often isn’t. In AO/NZ’s case it graphically ‘isn’t’.
      We’re being scammed by the hyper riche as much as we’ve been scammed by our own. We’re lied to, manipulated and mislead to not only to cover up old crimes but to insulate the perpetrators against any future inquiry.
      We are fucked @ JB but perhaps not in the way you might imagine.
      The deeply scary thing for me personally is that I don’t see anyone coming along to un fuck us.
      We don’t have any brave, kind, intellectuals ready and able to go to battle? We don’t have any organisations left alive within which we can stand united against any shit that’s flung our way. We’re only a few souls unlucky enough to be as lucky as we are.

  8. This sums it up;
    “Daalder correctly observes that if, as it appeared, the albeit declining daily infections were in transitional housing and gangs, it should have suggested possible more widespread and undetected transmission.”

    I recall the day of the decision the number was about 15-19 and they had started to rise. And indeed, the infection was in the lower socio-economic layer of the community from what I have seen it most definitely was. It was going house to house in the community least likely to adhere to any orders or seek medical attention. They knew from last time there was no enforcement of the rules, just “education” if one was caught so there was no legal consequence for breaches. And in that environment it flourished.

    Delta was just too infectious, the police didn’t want to know and lockdowns in Auckland way past their use by date so I think the government succumbed to the inevitable. Plus the leaking MIQ system would have let it in anyway, again.

    In an ironic twist, the outbreak in Auckland was the best promotion ever for vaccination both in terms of a government knowing it was THE only option left and the general public knowing it was as well.

    In Auckland we have got fully used to its presence and as much as our government allows, we just got on with it. The rest of NZ may as well too!

  9. “If the Government had stuck to their modellers advice Auckland would have been in Level for two weeks or so longer but most likely out of Level lockdown by the end of October.

    As a result much fewer Aucklanders would have been infected and hospitalised (to a lesser extent fewer deaths). There would have been much less stress and pressure on hospitals and the health workforce.”

    It’s possible that this might have occurred. And they would still have instituted vax mandates and vac passes.

  10. they simply gave up , good or bad thing? well that depends on your view but they did simply give up.
    The OBVIOUSLY planned incompetence around vaccine passports and the ease of forgery and the buying of bogus ones openly all indicates a policy that is designed to fail so jacinda can pull a pontius pilate……

  11. The government first needs to ban pharmaceutical advertising in New Zealand. Big Pharma is a health hazard, leave America to it. Then MPs need to stop acting like doctors and doctors need to stop pretending they are elected officials. They are not only making fools of themselves, they are harming this country rather than helping it. The coronavirus in question passed through NZ communities without consequence in early 2020 and yet here we are nearly two years later and these people just can’t let it go. They live for Covid, they make living off it, they depend on it, they abuse it, they…love it.

    • I must admit I was shocked to see ads for prescription medicines, it’s just not allowed in other civilised countries and no the US is not civilised by any yard stick you care to name.

  12. According to the trio of death (Wiles, Hendy and Baker) Ardern and her family should not leave Auckland this festive season, regardless of Neve’s unvaccinated health status or the fact that the two-year old outbreak (affecting only the elderly) blew through two years ago. This campaign of fear has gone from one of woke, self serving, drug dependent, micromanaging fetish to outright millitary facism, supported by blanket censorship, forced medical procedures and mass surveillance. Ancient and new disease will always be with us but to treat every new variant as potentially deadly which requires the entire country to lockdown is ludicrous. This is not science, democracy or even common sense. It has not been done in the past and only someone insane or with something to gain from a police state would do this. New Zealand citizens have always travelled the country with their potential to contract or transmit illness, it’s called risk, it’s called life. These so called experts are the ones that are ill.

  13. New Zealand once had a globally admired strategy for tackling Covid-19.

    It was called ‘Elimination’. The treatment involved isolating the virus in Auckland under Level 4 lockdown, (while the rest of the country enjoyed level 2), until the virus was eliminated.
    The treatment was working, from a high of 83 cases a day, (all contained in Auckland), the infection dropped down as low as 9 cases a day.
    After dropping sharply from 83 cases a day under the Auckland L4 lockdown, there was what was called “A Tail” a lingering period of around twenty infections a day, but which was still slowly declining to eventually reach the low of 9 cases a day.
    The Prime Minister and Suzi Wiles identified non-complying business as the source of the tail.

    The Prime Minister promised to “tighten up” on non-compliant business.
    But there was an “outcry” from business, 
    .
    The virus was being smashed and contained under the Auckalnd level 4 lockdown. All we needed, according to the health experts, was another two weeks.
    But after the “outcry” from business, the government caved in to the business lobby.

    As the health experts said at the time, “If we get rid of Level 4, we can forget about ever achieving Level 1
    And that’s how it’s been. trapped in a perpietual Level 3 Lodkdown. 

    I suppose it is all academic now. 

    But what this shows is the power of the business* lobby to manipulate government to its own interest.

    This does not bode well for us ever doing anything meaningful to tackle climate change.

    When I talk about ‘business’ I mean the big manufacturers.
    The small proprietors, shop and cafe owners, barbers, restaurants have been left to hang out to dry and either take on massive debt or go bust under the never ending L3 partiall lockdown.

    On August 30 still under Level 4 Lockdown, the Prime Minister identified businesses still operating in defiance of the Lockdown, as a source of infection and said she would look at tightening up restrictions on them.

    ​​​​​​​This is where things started to go wrong.

    Instead of tightening restrictions on “workplaces”. On September 7 following an “outcry” from manufacturers, despite still being under Level 4 Alert, the government did a  “U-turn” and loosened restrictions on worksites.

    September 7, 2021, marks the date that the government first gave in to pressure from business.

    Govt’s Auckland manufacturing u-turn

    7 Sep, 2021 05:22 PM

    By:Anne Gibson Property editor, NZ Herald

    ….Auckland residential construction manufacturing will be allowed to resume even though the city remains at level 4 alert.

    Grant Robertson, Finance Minister and Poto Williams, Building and Construction Minister, jointly announced the u-turn today.

    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/covid-19-coronavirus-delta-outbreak-govts-auckland-manufacturing-u-turn/S4LTUILFEVZRJFSUGHMVKJUKH4/

    The government surrender to the pressure from business that began under Lockdown on September 7, became a landslide 14 days later.

    On September 21, 2021, the government removed the restrictions on non-essential worksites, The next day 200,000 Auckland workers who had been isolating at home, were ordered back to work. The Level 4 lockdown was over.

    Eight days later, (which is about the period of incubation of the virus), the numbers of daily infections which had been approaching close to zero under the Level 4 Lockdown, started rising again, and haven’t stopped rising since.

    The Prime Minister breaks her word

    On September 21 when the Level 4 Alert was lifted, (see graph above), there was a total of 22 cases in the community .Two of those cases could not be traced to any known source of transmission. This was proof that cases of covid infections were still circulating undetected in the community.

    On August 30 the Prime Minister, (as well as saying that she would tighten restrictions on worksites), had also said that the Level 4 Lockdown in Auckland would not be lowered while there were still undetected cases of Delta Covid-19 circulating in the community.

    The government did a U-turn on this policy as well. 

    At the same time as announcing the drop from Alert Level 4, the government announced the beginning of the end for Alert Levels and lockdowns, and their replacement with a stepped system out of lockdown even as numbers of infections keep increasing, which just as predicted, they have.. 

    From the start of the outbreak on August 17, to the peak of 83 cases of Covid-19 on August 30, to the precipitous drop to almost total elimination by September 21, and then the abandonment of the Elimination strategy, followed by the rise in infections 8 days later. And finally, on October 5 the implementation of the first stage of the ‘The Traffic Light System was later added to Roadmap. The Roadmap and the Traffic Light system. The Prime Minister has said that there will no return to Elimination or lockdowns. (No matter how bad things get). 

    Fortunately the virus does not seem to be completely out of control, mainly due to voluntary changes in public behaviour.

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