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Posts with tag: covid-19

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NZ Abandons Covid Elimination Strategy

Posted by Iain on Sept. 4, 2020, 12:42 p.m. in COVID-19

The battle lines seemingly are now drawn. The national economy or the health of the nation. Is it naive to think you can have both?

After 102 days of no community transmission what appears to be a border lapse saw the re-emergence of Covid-19 in the community a few weeks ago in New Zealand. Limited to Auckland and the Waikato city of Tokoroa, Auckland was put into level three lockdown around three weeks ago once again restricting work and movement. For the first time we had road blocks in and out of Auckland (a nightmare for workers and probably just as bad for the police and army – suffice it to say it didn’t work very well). That basically meant working from home where possible and restaurants, cafes and schools were closed.

That changed at midnight on Monday this week when Auckland joined the rest of the country in level two which basically meant everything was open but social distancing, regular hand washing and mandatory facemasks on public transport (and recommended when leaving home), saw some relaxation and return to “normality".

New Zealanders, and most Aucklanders, are a stoic and now it seems clear, a fairly compliant lot. Earlier in the year the entire country was locked down for seven long (and for a time, relaxing) weeks. It was pleasantly surprising how few transgressions there were.

The Government claimed it could, through its ‘kind’ management and oversight keep New Zealanders safe from community transmission if we just followed its directives.

Well we did, we took the economic hit Covid is back among us…

The economic damage has been serious and although unemployment continues to be a pleasing 4% (unofficially 5%), underpinned largely by the Government’s wage subsidy and the printing of billions upon billions of dollars, there’s no doubt in my mind that keeping Auckland locked down for any longer than two and half weeks, was always going to be the biggest political challenge facing the Government, only seven weeks out from the election (moved from September to October). And costly – another billion dollars in lost economic activity every two weeks Auckland is closed.

Although most epidemiologists called for another week or two in lockdown given we still have small cases popping up regularly in Auckland I don’t think the government, until now hellbent on some heroic cause to eliminate the virus from the community, could risk the political fallout of continuing to choke economic activity in Auckland, the nation’s engine room.

I think in some respects that while they’ll never admit it, they have got ‘real’ and realised virtually no country apart from Taiwan and Thailand has successfully suppressed the virus and prevented its re-emergence after widespread lockdowns.

So now we get to see what happens.

Each day anything from two to five new cases appear, thankfully and so far all linked to one another (making them somewhat easier to trace and isolate). The pleasing aspect is the Government rolled out an effective testing programme with over 100,000 tests being completed in the past three weeks.

They say the disease is ‘contained’.

Epidemiologists are not so sure.

With everyone back at work and moving around already the signs of social distancing is being largely ignored. Schools are back. Movie theatres, cafes, bars and restaurants are open but limited in the numbers allowed in. Large gatherings (apart from funerals) have been banned in Auckland but Aucklanders are now free to travel around the country. This concerns many outside of the region.

I suspect we will see a small spike in cases but this will be the true test of how well the Government, caught short back in March, has learned and prepared over the past five months. Like many people, I always thought elimination or eradicating the virus would be next to impossible long term - too many people are arriving here from overseas with it. I really do question why we continue to let people in from countries awash with this disease like India - surely a negative test within a few days of travelling should be a prerequisite for travelling (and yes I realise people can still pick it up along the way especially whilst in transit).

The question now is can we learn to live with it and contain it sufficiently so that there’s never more than a few hundred people self isolating or in managed quarantine (those found to be positive are shipped off into quarantine hotels) and keep the rest of the economy moving?

Having spent $36 billion in four months on fiscal stimulus the economic wheels are definitely still turning. Many exporters, particularly of primary products and wine(!) are doing really well. Among the service and manufacturing sectors the nervousness is palpable. The economy sprung back after the first lockdown ended and while the Government is at pains to reassure us that we won’t ‘need’ to lockdown to level 3 again, because they have systems in place, I can’t help thinking that is wishful thinking. I am starting to think that economics now has its nose ahead of health.

I think it is also fair to say patience has run out with the legions of bureaucrats across multiple Ministries, who let’s face it, at the best of times couldn’t organise a good knees up in a brewery. A group of highly regarded and talented business and IT professionals have designed a blue tooth ‘CovidCard’ that would be warn like a lanyard around the neck. The idea being no need to scan QRC codes and no need for a cellphone when you enter any premises. The CovidCard would record (privately) which other cards you came within a few metres of, allowing for quick and easy tracing in the event someone you came into contact with so if someone you’d had a close contact with turned out to be positive you could scuttle off and get yourself a test. The Government has been trying to get us all to use their Covid phone app and to scan QR codes. They haven’t been successful overseas and are only being used some of the time by some people here.

These bright things from the private sector have walked away this past week citing ‘useless’ bureaucrats with their own agendas operating inside the Ministry of health (among others).

I look with some envy across the Tasman where the Australian government is talking about tax cuts to stimulate a private sector led recovery. Here it seems the left wingers in Government think they have all the answers and their thousands of bureaucrats will lead us back to where we were pre-Covid. It seems to me the Labour Party want us to marry them, to honour and obey till the polls do us part.

Looks to me like we will be more like Queensland or New South Wales in future - inevitable outbreaks given no border that has any overseas travelers crossing it today is going to be 100% secure - but dealing with the outbreaks quickly and effectively, allowing the significant majority of wealth generators to keep doing what they do so well. While the bureaucrats bungle away behind the scenes but with their hands on the tiller.

Our smug complacency having reached that 102 day ‘no community transmission’ milestone has been well and truly shattered but for now anyway Aucklanders have done the right thing and got this beast under control again. The cost of $500 million a week though is simply too high to be ignored.

Now we face the next chapter of this battle and the true test of the Government’s strategy to contain, suppress and try and eliminate the virus.

So far, a guarded, so good. We cannot and I am sure will not tolerate any more lockdowns.

Until next week.


Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

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Tags: Health | Economy | covid-19

Community Coronavirus Returns

Posted by Iain on Aug. 14, 2020, 3:32 p.m. in Coronavirus


I guess it couldn’t last, as much as we all had planned and hoped it would.

After 102 days of no community transmission 30 (and counting) cases of the coronavirus have been identified, all linked to one family. All those positively tested have been moved into mandatory quarantine. That’s new. Clearly the government feels that it only takes one person not following isolation rules to set this virus off again. So anyone that is found to be positive is being bundled off into mandatory quarantine.

Consequently, Auckland is in level 3 lockdown for the next 12 days which basically means everyone must work from home (unless they can’t), restaurants and bars are closed apart from for takeaways, etc. No one can enter orleave Auckland - but that seems all a bit random as well with roadblocks in operation but a system of trust determining whether the police let you in or out.

Although the situation is fast moving the Minister of Health has said there’s no plan to go to full level 4 lockdown as we endured for 51 days earlier in the year. Cold comfort for the thousands of businesses that now cannot trade.

The rest of the country is at level 2 which basically means they must keep away from one another as best they can but get on with life. Luckily I am not in Auckland and where we are things continue to be pretty normal. A visit this morning to the local grocery store, pharmacy and butcher saw no restrictions (and interestingly no one asked me to use my Covid QR Code tracing app on my phone having entered their shop).

Now we will see how well the Government’s systems have been prepared for what many of us increasingly felt was an inevitability. If breakouts had taken place in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Australia when all of those countries had initially brought things under control, why did we think we could keep this thing out of our communities?

Now we will see whether ‘elimination’ rather than ‘suppression’ works and if eliminating the virus when it pops up every few weeks or months might bring the country to its economic knees.

If we go for elimination what will it take?  And when the virus pops up again will we be yo-yoing in and out of lockdowns until (and if) there is an effective vaccine?

I have to say it is pretty depressing when so many other countries have said living with the virus is the way to go. If the border could be made 100% secure and the systems were in place to ensure the virus stays at the border I am all in. But this seems to be proof it’s all but impossible.

Clearly and probably predictably the virus seems to have entered the community through some failure of the quarantine or border processes.

Disbelief and incredulity from health professionals are two words being heard across New Zealand the past 24 hours after it was revealed only around one-third of all front line border staff (immigration, customs, biosecurity, airline ground staff, baggage handlers, etc) have ever been tested for the virus. Ever.

It seems hardly believable. A scramble today to get them tested.

We were equally surprised last week when it was revealed that the bus drivers taking people arriving at the airport to isolation hotels were only being tested every three weeks.

I know I sound like a stuck record but if you want a job done properly don’t give it to a bureaucrat. Harsh? Well, when you have a Government that backs the civil servants over the private sector (including for the most part public private partnerships) the responsibility lies with them to do the job properly. The people of this country gave up a hell of a lot for those 102 days of relative freedom and if as seems likely it turns out there was a failure in the Government’s systems they need to be held to account. With an election around a month away, perhaps they will be.

I accept unequivocally that this virus is a slippery customer but this Government, virtually alone among global governments, decided to pursue an elimination and eradication strategy when others sought to suppress it as best as possible and are learning to live with it.  Will New Zealand now pay an even higher economic price for it?

I hope the government was right and the sceptics like me are proven wrong.

In terms of how this impacts on visa processing more chaos inside INZ.  With Auckland being the centre of all skilled migrant and other residence visa application processing you’d have thought the comms people and senior managers would have had a plan in place to deal with outbreaks in any given city with INZ branches in it.

It took almost two full working days for the first communications to be released from Wellington. It claimed that INZ in Auckland was still at work, yet we had received numerous out of office auto replies from case officers telling us the office was closed. I first raised the ‘what happens now?’ question with the ranking national manager on Wednesday morning given we were already being told that the biggest office in Auckland was closed yet according to the Government at level 3 only those who could work from home, had to. We know from the first lockdown INZ has limited to zero capacity to work remotely as it lacks the IT systems that allow it, so why were we getting messages INZ was closed?

The comms people either don’t know what INZ in Auckland was telling its customers or INZ Auckland wasn’t listening to head office.

INZ did not work through the last lockdown level 3 period.

A shambles as usual.

We can but hope INZ stays at work and keeps dealing with that backlog of cases.

For those of you following recent blogs the Skilled Migrant Category non-priority queue which represents around 90% of all cases sitting in the system, still has the most recent case to be allocated for processing receipted by INZ on 21 December 2018. Despite the claim both priority and non-priority queues are moving this for the most part is a lie. Overwhelmingly it is the priority queue (and the priorities that exist within that priority queue) that continue to take precedence.

However, we continue to get credible reports that small numbers of non-priority cases are being assigned to officers, processed and approved. A $25.50 per hour chef for example who went public on Facebook. INZ refused to answer questions why such a case was given priority for privacy reasons even though the guy put his name to his post. A 27 year old British national had her case allocated and processed when it met none of the priority criteria. I imagine that is quite simply because as she was British she was tagged with a ‘lower risk’ profile. A training case or just one that helped the kpis got to jump the queue while more deserving cases languish because they are perceived as being ‘harder’.

As I have written about recently we have been advised by the ranking national manager that a good number of those allocated that are non-priority are being allocated simply for the sake of expediency - for training (they have a lot of officers who have no idea what they are doing so need less complex cases to cut their teeth on) and for ‘improved efficiency’ (meaning they have kpis to meet).

The consequences of course are that far more deserving and urgent cases are being left in the pile and with every lockdown the risk some of those people losing their job increases.

Finally and no less importantly, 25 September is D-Day for tens of thousands of people in the country on visitor visas. They are now being advised to apply for a new visa (if they believe that they qualify) or to make plans to leave the country. We have at least one client trying to make a plan to return to South Africa if she cannot find a job but she has been told by multiple airlines it is impossible to book flights all the way through. Given getting ‘home’ involves multiple stops and often two or three airlines, it might be possible to book particular legs (which are prone to last minute cancellations and changes) but it is almost impossible to guarantee flights all the way home.

I assume the government will grant such people visa extensions as ‘exceptions’ if they present credible evidence they cannot get home. If they don’t it raises an interesting legal question - if the Government is the reason someone becomes unlawful can the same Government penalise the migrant for being unlawful?

As always more questions than answers.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man

Tags: lockdown | covid-19 | auckland

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