The New Zealand government has set up an independent advisory group to review its handling of the latest coronavirus outbreak, and “sharpening” the ongoing pandemic response.
The minister for the Covid-19 response, Chris Hipkins, announced the formation of the bodies on Tuesday following criticism of the government’s handling of a cluster of coronavirus cases in Auckland.
The city went into isolation twice last month after confirmed cases were revealed to have defied stay-at-home orders, prompting prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to voice frustration with rule breakers. This, in turn, led to criticism of government communications and outreach strategies from South Auckland community leaders, political opponents, and the media.
Ardern told Radio New Zealand that plans for the agency predate the recent outbreak, but previous governments have learned from independent reviews of contact tracing systems and implementation of their testing strategies. The new group will allow “continuous improvement work,” he said.
Hipkins says that reveals lessons from The South Auckland outbreak will be one of the first priorities.
“I imagine when they see this latest response, there will no doubt be things that can be fixed for next time and that’s what we want them to do.
“I’ve been envisioning some of the things I would like them to see, like whether having four different contact categories is helping or getting in the way.”
The opposition National Party welcomed the move, and in particular the oversight of the isolation and quarantine system it is running, following the breach at the Pullman hotel earlier this year. “This is something a lot of people have been asking for, for some time,” said Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop.
This group is tasked with providing advice on every aspect of the Covid-19 government’s response, including strategic direction, communication with the public, and outbreak planning.
It will also oversee the conduct of previous reviews. Its chairman, Sir Brian Roche, chairs an advisory committee on the testing strategy which – in a report released in December – criticize Ministry of Health for poor messaging and coordination.
The leader of the acting party, David Seymour, the word the formation of this group is an acknowledgment that many of the recommendations made in the report have not been adopted. He said New Zealand’s Covid-19 response needed to be removed from under the health ministry’s “monopoly” and under the “multi-disciplinary, public and private task force”.
That The Lowy Institute ranks New Zealand’s Covid-19 response as the best of any country in the world – with only 26 deaths – argues that small countries, with populations smaller than 10 million people, and countries where political leaders are trusted, and which have effective state agencies, responded best to the pandemic.
Outreach and engagement are priorities for the new group, with terms of reference that make it clear that members are expected to engage with a wider range of stakeholders – including Māori iwi (tribal) and vulnerable communities – “to ensure that they have a broad view of the system”.
Members under Roche are former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, epidemiologist Phillip Hall, Māori health practitioner Dale Bramley, and Pacific public health experts and Debbie Ryan.
The Covid-19 Independent Continuous Review, Improvement and Advice Group will start work from March 15, meeting at least twice a month until June next year.
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