To do their jobs, authorities must respond

The Government must stamp out Covid-19 but also answer questions, writes David Williams

OPINION: It’s a national emergency, almost all Kiwis are locked down, and all arms of government must work as hard as they can to find, stamp out and eradicate Covid-19.

But that doesn’t absolve those taxpayer-paid bureaucrats and politicians from other important duties. One of those is responding to the media. It was the Government itself that deemed media an essential service, but I fear its interpretation might be different to ours.

The media has a collective responsibility to disseminate information to ensure people understand their obligations, so the virus won’t spread further. We should, as an industry, call out poor public behaviour, and clear up confusion about what is essential and what’s not. We’ve been doing that and more.

But the media can’t just be the carriers of messages issued from the stage of the Beehive Theatrette by the likes of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. Those standing at the podium need to be well-briefed and, in the absence of off-the-cuff answers, officials should work diligently to find and deliver them.

Scrutiny of the Covid-19 response is essential to be sure we, as a country, are making the right decisions, based on the best advice. That role is the same whether it’s reporting on the United Kingdom’s initial, much-maligned “herd immunity” approach, US President Donald Trump’s ridiculous goal of packed churches on Easter Sunday, or the generally accepted approach in New Zealand.

Government is, necessarily, made up of thousands of people to ensure it can do a bunch of things at the same time. Even in an emergency, this should be true. While the frontline staff swab people with Covid-19 symptoms, and health professionals treat the sick, the league of people behind the scenes, including squads of communications staff, have an important job of answering the questions put by representatives of the public. (That includes providing data, like daily testing rates, not seven-day smoothed rates.)

Let’s take one exampleAt Monday’s all-of-government briefing in Wellington, my colleague Sam Sachdeva asked of the Director General of Health: “The Southern DHB last week said it was still seeking 257 contacts from the World Hereford Conference. How many contacts are yet to be traced from confirmed cases, and what does that mean in terms of a potential backlog – are we going back weeks now, in terms of trying to track down all those potential contacts?”

Bloomfield didn’t answer the question. No attempt at a ballpark figure.

He said: “What I can say is that there’s much greater capacity now to do that contact tracing, and it’s always work in progress.

“For example, sometimes it takes six or seven phone calls to see if somebody can be contacted. If they can’t be then we work with other organisations, including the police, potentially, to go and visit that address. So it depends on the number of contacts associated with each case.

“We’ve got around 100 people now working in our national contact centre and that number is increasing daily. But so far, every contact that we’ve been notified of, at least up until the last two days, has been followed up with at least one phone call.”

Hours later, it was announced a nurse at Queenstown’s Lakes District Hospital tested positive for the virus, taking the resort town’s total cases to 31 – almost a third of whom are aged in their 20s. Queenstown’s figures were taking off.

That night we emailed questions to the Southern District Health Board. They were nuts and bolts questions – most of which should be known to management.

What was the source of infection of the Queenstown confirmed cases? How many tests have been done in the resort town and by whom (ie. Local staff)? Are people in Queenstown doing the contact tracing? How many contacts of confirmed cases are yet to be contacted? How many DHB staff in Queenstown have tested positive for Covid-19 and how many are in isolation as a result? How many intensive care beds and ventilators are there at Queenstown’s hospital? In the speculative realm, I asked what modelling tells us about the risks in Queenstown.

By 9.30am the next morning, a communications staffer emailed a suggested response to her boss – and by accident sent it to us. It reveals a strategy of tightly controlling the message and handing out stale answers.

“Is this okay to go out please?” the email said. “He is asking impossibly detailed questions. I’ve answered what has already been in the media before or approved to go. The piece in yellow has already been reported in The Southland Times.”

The “yellow” piece read: “We have more than 80 contact tracers working in Southern, based in various locations but they are working on cases all over the district, including Queenstown.”

The official response clarified that Lakes District Hospital has no ICU beds, and two ventilators. It also said individual media queries were not being answered, but were instead being answered in the daily media update.

The communications staffer followed up on Wednesday to say 14 contact tracers were located in Queenstown, but emphasised they’re part of a district-wide team. “Contact tracing can occur from anywhere in the district,” the answer said. “Regarding your question as to whether the DHB has asked police to knock on doors of anyone they’ve been unable to contact, we are not aware of that occurring.”

The Tuesday evening media update didn’t answer many of our questions. It did confirm, however, a second nurse had tested positive for Covid-19, all 74 of their colleagues were being tested and 15 were required to self-isolate. The main area of the hospital was closed during extensive cleaning.

At a total 98 cases, Southern, on Tuesday at least, had more cases than any other DHB area in the country.

The Southern DHB suggested we ask our questions about testing to the Ministry of Health, which we did, adding that we’d like them to answer Sam’s question about the backlog of contact tracing.

The media relations manager didn’t even respond. His response to other queries has been to suggest journalists ask them in that day’s briefing – but, as above, those questions often go unanswered. As do the follow-up questions. They’re doing their best, it seems, but it should be someone’s job to burrow into the numbers and find out.

Sometimes those questions aren’t complicated. My colleague Marc Daalder has been asking for three weeks how many hospital beds there are in the country, but he’s yet to get an answer. Surely it can’t be that hard.

This is the biggest crisis since World War Two, and the government response to this should be open to scrutiny.

A welcome move on Tuesday was the first virtual meeting of the Epidemic Response Committee of Parliament, chaired by National Party leader Simon Bridges and stacked with Opposition MPs.

David Skegg, an epidemiologist acting as a special adviser to the committee, told the video conference of MPs far more testing needed to be done so cases could be detected and isolated. Later that day, Ardern announced the criteria for testing would be loosened and more tests would be done.

That’s good public policy, you might say – politicians responding to expert advice. Another example of good public policy is responding to the fourth estate.

Any journalist will tell you there’s a classic tension between us and communications staff. That’s usually heightened for those working to daily deadlines. (It’s ironic that as the numbers of communications and PR staff have grown the responses seem to have slowed.)

This story might be dismissed as a bleat from a far-flung journo working for a small outlet shouting into a small cave where no one’s listening. But without the media’s collective work, including op-ed pieces by scientists and medical professionals, would the Government have moved as quickly to ban non-citizens and non-residents from arriving, or implement a national shutdown?

That’s how public pressure works. That same pressure might be needed to shake officials in Wellington, Dunedin and other centres to go beyond tightly controlled set-pieces, like televised updates and daily emails, and answering, in good time, important questions about crucial aspects of the response.

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