A number of epidemiologists and public health experts who have been central to helping chart and communicate New Zealand’s Covid response thus far say they were taken by surprise by its new direction, and not consulted by the government as it pivoted away from elimination and outlined a controversial set of “steps” out of level 3 restrictions last week.
The announcement was a shift in tack for New Zealand’s government, which has spent most of the pandemic in close to lock-step with public health professionals.
“We were obviously surprised on Monday last week when the government seemed to say that we were moving away from elimination,” said prof Michael Baker, one of the country’s most prominent pandemic communicators and a member of the ministry’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory group. “A decision of that size – changing your major strategy – you’d think you would consult with [the] quite small batch of scientists and other advisers who work very hard to support the government … explaining things to the public.”
“That was very unusual. I think the government’s done a great job generally with consultation and getting us all to at least understand the rationale for change.”
That sentiment was echoed by a range of other experts who have become prominent in New Zealand’s pandemic response.
“I don’t know what their consultation schedule was like – I certainly was not involved,” Pacific health expert and associate professor Collin Tukuitonga, of University of Auckland. Tukuitonga is a past director of public health at the Ministry of Health, and was on the ministry’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group.
“A number of us were surprised at the announcement last Monday, the change that happened,” he said. “I personally thought it was premature to have gone to level 3, given the fact that we had all those new cases and unlinked cases as well, and low vaccination coverage in Auckland – so no, I was not involved and I don’t know who they consulted with.”
He said further loosening of restrictions that were previewed on Monday, including the announcement – since rolled back – that schools would be reopening on 18 October – were also out of step with the realities of a growing outbreak.
“I thought it was a fairly risky strategy – and time has proven that,” he said. “On Sunday there were 60 cases. In other words, there’s still transmission going on and I would have thought that we would have held the line with our original plan and elimination, until we had vaccination rates up, [given] the risks would be borne by Māori and Pasifika people.”
Over the last week, particular concerns have been raised about Covid-19’s potential impact on Māori and Pacific New Zealanders, who have lower rates of vaccination and are more vulnerable to serious illness, hospitalisation and death. On Monday, the Māori party said if the government stayed its current course it would represent a “modern genocide” for Māori.
Baker said that lack of discussion with independent public health experts was a “stark contrast” to major decisions at different stages of the pandemic – such as the reopening New Zealand plan released in August, which was based closely on advice from professor David Skegg and featured panels of outside experts at its release.
“I think it’s surprised all the advisers, because it’s not that hard to actually consult – it’s such a stark contrast with the reconnecting strategy released on 12 August, which was, I think really, very well done.”
“It would have been easy to have engaged us with this, and also we could have done a bit of a logic check on it, saying, well, that doesn’t look quite right.”
The government has not released the health advice that informed its decision to ease restrictions in the midst of the outbreak. Some in New Zealand have called on the government to release that rationale – health reporter Marc Daalder wrote last week that, “Given the Government’s approach conflicts with the best advice from the country’s independent experts, New Zealanders have a right to know what advice underpinned Cabinet’s U-turn into the suppression experiment.”
Shaun Hendy, a pandemic modeller for Te Pūnaha Matatini, said while the research institute was not consulted directly on last week’s announcements, they had been involved in longer term planning that was now being drawn on by government. He said the lack of consultation could simply be a result of the speed at which the government was responding to the current outbreak.
“We would hope to be doing this kind of reopening plan next year in a staged way, with lots of consultation, but now it’s kind of been forced on us,” Hendy said.
“Typically there’s a split between the short term decision-making and the longer-term planning – and I think just out of necessity, those things have become a lot more blurred now.”
“I think the timescales for being able to do this have just accelerated now,” he said. “Things have had to change, simply because of where we are with this outbreak – the opportunity to have input into decision making processes has all changed.”
The Ministry of Health and Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins were contacted for comment. A spokesperson for Hipkins’ office said “the Minister very much values expert insight and advice. He has frequently publicly referred to the importance of this.” They directed the Guardian to a panel of independent experts put together to advise Government on New Zealand’s re-opening pathway in April.