Heather Roy

16 August 2020

Pandemic. Imminent Election. Resurgence of COVID19 in the community. Election campaigning paused.

We are living in surreal times. As well as dealing with a pandemic we are also in the midst of an election campaign, but one that is paused while the Prime Minister mulls over whether it should be delayed or not. While we wait for her to make up her mind I’d like to be considering the policies the parties are offering this election. Of the parties in parliament only the Greens and ACT have actually announced comprehensive policies. Labour says their management of COVID is their election campaign and National has rolled out a nationwide roading policy but little else. We’re still waiting on Winston to hold up three fingers and tell us his three top priorities as he usually does.

We should be under no illusion. This is a very important election. We’re experiencing a period of extreme disruption and we now need a government who can make the country resilient in the face of ongoing disruption. The Labour-led Government has borrowed like there’s no tomorrow and kiwis deserve to know how each party plans to manage the economy. The pandemic means health policy is more important than ever – not just COVID19 management but also keeping the health system operating as normal. People haven’t suddenly stopped getting sick from things other than the coronavirus. Robust policy is also desperately needed to manage the border effectively.

At the 2008 election I was responsible for Defence policy for ACT.  To get away from the silo thinking that bedevils governments my policy team instead developed an International Relations and National Security policy called Keeping Kiwis Safe in the 21st Century. At its heart was a National Security Agency with a National Security Advisor responsible for providing advice to Government on all matters relating to the safety and security of New Zealanders. Anything from war, to invasion of our borders, illegal intrusion of our EEZ, biosecurity threats and pandemic were included. The reasoning was a National Security Strategy would mean the Agency was responsible for planning, testing and implementing courses of action in the event of any disruption to our security. It would have oversight of all threats and the power to call in and use any government agency (Defence, Police, Civil Defence, Biosecurity, Customs, Health etc) needed to deal with the threat. In short it called for cross agency action in times of crisis, in a planned and co-ordinated way. No silos, no agency arguments about who is in charge.

We do have a National Security Minister, the Prime Minister. What she doesn’t have is an agency, as this function sits in DPMC (the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet). There is no dedicated funding for National Security, merely a set of guidelines. Recent events have reinforced my belief there is an urgent need for a National Security Agency. Without a National Security Strategy we were left scrambling to put together a reactionary action plan at short notice when COVID19 turned up in New Zealand. Dealing with the health and economic impacts after the event and expecting government agencies, businesses and the people to swing into action quickly is not a strategy. It’s a reaction to events that should have been planned for and there was nothing “hard” or ‘fast” about it.

I take issue with the Prime Minister’s constant mantra of “we went hard and fast”. If we’d gone fast – as in closing the border more quickly – we wouldn’t have had to go as hard in terms of lockdowns, businesses forced to shut their doors and Government borrowing an unprecedented amount to prop up the economy.

Without a strategy it was the devil’s own job trying to work out what the right COVID19 plan for New Zealand was, as evidenced by the many different approaches we see in other countries. However we’d  have had a better chance of being able to react quickly and effectively if there had been a well thought out and tested strategy in place. It’s Governance 101. New Zealand has been found wanting, despite the many warning signs in recent history – swine flu, bird flu, SARS, ebola to name some. In the same way our businesses were often reluctant to add pandemic to their risk registers because they thought we’d never see one in New Zealand, successive governments have failed to plan effectively for the devasting situation we now find ourselves in.

The greatest threat to New Zealand initially with COVID19 was the border. The greatest threat to New Zealand now with COVID19 is the border. Although things seem to have improved in the past few weeks significant gaps are still being identified, and somehow the coronavirus slipped through again into the community. So, what exactly is the problem? And what is the solution?

There are still a number of problems to do with testing, quarantine and compassionate concerns. The  knee-jerk solution to border problems was to call on the Defence Force to run the Quarantine operations. This is perfectly acceptable in a first responder capacity as explained by Simon Ewing-Jarive in his blogpost “The NZDF aren’t handbag checkers” but not acceptable when brought in to sort out other agencies bungles. Those of us who have been in uniform know the specialist training we receive provides excellent capability in many areas. But recent governments appear to have little if any recognition of this. In peace time (and I include non-COVID time) the Defence Force is seen as an expensive luxury with little relevance in a largely peaceful world. This explains why NZDF numbers have fallen from a high of around 25,000 in 1973 to the current 12,000 people currently in uniform. But come times of disaster the government and the people expect the Defence Force to rise to any challenge. This is unfair and completely unreasonable. The advantage of a National Security Agency is that experts would determine the capability required of Defence alongside all the other safety and security agencies for times such as these, and would determine how and when the expertise of each agency is called upon.

The government has nailed New Zealand’s colours to the mast with an elimination strategy. The Ministry of Health website defines elimination of COVID19 as:

“… a sustained approach to keep it out, find it and stamp it out. We do this through: controlling entry at the border; disease surveillance; physical distancing and hygiene measures; testing for and tracing all potential cases; isolating cases and their close contacts; and broader public health controls depending on the alert level we are in.” 

Discussions abound in the media, amongst politicians and around the traps as to whether elimination is the right strategy. The sobering fact is we just don’t know. And we won’t know for a long time yet, probably years. Success of New Zealand’s elimination strategy is dependent on two things:

  1. Keeping our borders shut and tightly controlled for those allowed into the country for as long as it takes for COVID19 to be eradicated globally, or
  2. A vaccine developed, manufactured in huge quantities and distributed around the globe.

However, if a dedicated agency with the right expertise had had time to develop a strategy and test it we wouldn’t have been flying blind for the first part of New Zealand’s COVID19 management. My 2008 policy is available for any political party to use. Is proper planning really too much to expect of our government when our safety and security is at stake? It shouldn’t be.