Row erupts over the New Zealand Government’s Covid crisis mistake.

The internationally acclaimed excellent performance by the New Zealand Government against the Carona virus has been marred by a mistake. It may damage the Government’s credibility as an election approaches.

The problem centred on two returning New Zealanders who were treated with an abundance of compassion, care and empathy. These qualities have been demonstrated by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during a number of crises in the last two and a half years.

After months of virtually faultless handling of the Covid health crisis Ardern’s administration is under fire after an error occurred in the system of testing returning New Zealanders.

Two New Zealand sisters living in the UK flew home to see their dying mother. On arrival they entered supervised isolation in Auckland but after a week asked for early release on compassionate grounds. They wanted to use a family member’s car to drive to Wellington to see their mother.

They either dodged, declined, refused or were simply overlooked for a scheduled Covid test on day three of their supervised isolation.

One of the women said she had felt ill but thought she was experiencing a pre-existing condition.

They were released on the condition they would be tested on arrival in Wellington over 640 km away. Driving there takes about eight hours.

Implausibly the sisters said they did not use public toilets on the way and didn’t need to refuel. They said they got lost and spent a few minutes with family members getting directions.

On arrival in Wellington they were tested and found to be positive for Covid-19.

As a result 386 people needed to be followed up and checked including airline staff and passengers, airport staff, travellers in isolation in the hotel where they stayed in Auckland and members of the two women’s family.

However there is no sign anyone else became infected and there is no sign of a resulting spike in community transmission. The incident could have been a minor blemish on an otherwise clean record.

That hasn’t deterred the Parliamentary Opposition and media commentators. They leapt on the issue with enthusiasm. One headline said the Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield had gone from “Hero to Zero”. Bloomfield’s work throughout the crisis has been little short of heroic and personal attacks on him or any public servant are regarded as a breach of convention in New Zealand.

One famously controversial commentator Mike Hosking said the incident proved the government couldn’t organise a booze-up in a brewery. Others called for heads to roll.

Their moral high ground rapidly eroded when it was discovered that an Opposition Member of Parliament Chris Bishop had lobbied for the women to be allowed to leave isolation early.

The fact remained the women had been released without a test and the mistake threatened the perfect run of the “team of five million.” The two infected women were the first positive returns after more than three weeks of no new cases.

To put it in perspective, the two missed tests stained a long success story. Over twenty thousand New Zealanders living in Covid rich environments overseas have returned home since March 26 without problems and without causing a spike in infection rates.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was an “unacceptable failure of the system. It should never have happened.”

Ardern and her team were quick to accept responsibility and moved to improve procedures. Further compassionate releases from isolation were temporarily halted. Changes were made to the administration of the quarantine and managed isolation facilities.

In the week when the two sisters were found to be infected, five further cases were detected in New Zealand. All were New Zealanders returning from overseas.

While the pandemic is accelerating in much of the rest of the world more New Zealanders are expected to fly home. Some will inevitably carry infection that needs to be detected at the border.

To provide for this in the long term structural changes were made.

The Minister for Housing and Urban Development Megan Woods said the Ministry of Health was the obvious go-to ministry in the early stages of the health emergency. However that ministry was not suitable for the long term administration of the quarantine facilities as it is a policy-making department with operations normally conducted by numerous District Health Boards.

As a result, the provision and supervision of quarantine and isolation facilities were made the responsibility of the Ministry of Housing with support from the military.

Returning New Zealanders have been welcomed home with relatively lenient isolation conditions. There are signs there will be less leniency in future.

The managed isolation programme produces a significant housing problem. Earlier in the week (June 22) over four thousand passengers were in isolation in hotels with another nine hundred due to arrive in the next few days. Auckland’s isolation hotels had reached capacity and new arrivals were being taken by coach to hotels in Rotorua. There were nine active cases in New Zealand.

So far there have been no public polls to test whether the row has damaged Jacinda Ardern’s standing and reputation for competence.

The latest poll taken before the incident but after the election of the new Leader of the Opposition Todd Muller is not encouraging for the Opposition.

Horizon Research asked respondents who was the best person to manage the pandemic. Jacinda Ardern was ahead on 66% with Opposition leader Todd Muller on 14%.

The Labour Party is often accused of being weak on economic issues so the results to the question asking who would be the best leader for the economic recovery were remarkable. Ardern was again far ahead on 53%, Muller on 24%.

This is a notable result considering much of Muller’s publicity has promoted him as an experienced businessman.

The Government faces an election on September 19. As the Covid crisis drags on it will be an arduous three months in which the Government’s competency will be further tested.

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Max Hayton is a New Zealand journalist who worked as a political correspondent in the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Wellington in his younger days. He then traveled to London to specialise in foreign television news. In 1989 he became Foreign Editor at the start-up private channel TV3 New Zealand. After some years he became the Foreign Editor at Television New Zealand where he worked until he retired.

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