Government announces $500m health boost

In an attempt to bolster the health system’s efforts to fight Covid-19, the Government has announced $500 million in funding for healthcare as well as $126.5 million to support people in self-isolation or who catch the virus, Marc Daalder reports

The Government will put half a billion dollars into the health system “to strengthen our health services to fight and contain Covid-19,” Minister of Health David Clark said Tuesday.

The package is part of a $12.1 billion spend the Government announced on Tuesday to grapple with the economic impacts of Covid-19.

“We know we will see more cases of Covid-19 arrive here. So we must plan and prepare for that reality,” Clark said.

Nearly half of the funding has already been earmarked for specific projects, while $265 million will be held for future announcements. Finance Minister Grant Robertson said this was just the first stage of the Government’s response to the virus and even more funding would be forthcoming.

"This health package is comprehensive and timely. It should be welcomed by the entire health and public health sectors. We are at the first phase of what will be a long journey with this pandemic," Michael Baker, a Professor at Otago University's Department of Public Health, said in expert analysis provided by the Science Media Centre

Testing and system capacity to be expanded

A significant chunk of the money will go to ramping up New Zealand’s capacity to test for Covid-19 and to treat patients who have fallen ill with the disease.

Newsroom reported on Monday that the country doesn’t have the intensive care capacity to treat more than 3,500 simultaneous cases of Covid-19. With just 176 ICU beds and data from overseas indicating that five percent of patients will need intensive care, New Zealand’s resources on this front could quickly become overwhelmed.

The funding will seek to address that shortage, with $32 million earmarked for “purchasing additional ventilated and non-ventilated ICU capacity (private and public)”. Clark clarified that this didn’t necessarily involve increasing the number of ICU beds.

“The way in which that money has been initially allocated, it’s the cost of freeing up capacity across the system to put into ICU rather than dealing specifically with the number of bed days,” he said.

“We know we do need to scale up our ICU preparedness.”

"Parts of the health package relate more to treating the huge surge of cases that will occur if containment fails. This includes resources for primary care and support for care in the home through to additional ICU and ventilator capacity and personal protective equipment for health care workers," Baker said.

Overseas evidence has also indicated that a robust testing regime is one of the most effective ways to blunt the spread of the virus and decrease its deadliness. South Korea, which has tested more than 240,000 people out of a population of 51 million, has managed to dramatically slow the rise in cases it experienced in the first weeks of the virus’ spread.

Jacinda Ardern instructed doctors on Tuesday to test patients even if they didn’t fit the strict criteria the Government has put out for testing. The new package will put $5 million towards expanding testing capacity, which is expected to reach 1,500 per day later this week.

Public Health Units, which received $46.7 million in funding for regular operations, will have their budgets nearly doubled with the addition of another $40 million. PHUs have been instrumental in dealing with Covid-19 domestically, particularly through tracing the contacts of confirmed cases, Clark said.

“Staff in our Pubic Health Units are our first line of defence against infectious diseases, but they don’t have the resources they need to handle a pandemic. So we’re putting more than $40 million immediately into public health, with a strong emphasis on contact tracing,” Clark said.

Social isolation relief package

The widespread self-isolation restrictions imposed on anyone entering the country if they didn’t come from the Pacific could impose financial burdens on those in isolation. More than $125 million has been appropriated to support workers – whether employees, contractors or self-employed – who are unable to work from home.

The package covers the next eight weeks. Any New Zealand resident in self-isolation – because they entered the country from overseas or came in contact with a confirmed case – will receive a payment of $585.80 per week if a full-time employee or $350 per week if part-time. The money will passed on to employees from the Ministry for Social Development via their employer.

Money will be available for two weeks for those in self-isolation. The same amount is also available for those who need to stay home because they have contracted Covid-19, but this funding will persist until patients recover.

The money will be provided in addition to any sick leave the worker may receive.

It is also limited only to those who are unable to work from home.

Communications to be boosted

The Government also sees public health messaging and a clear line of communication for concerned citizens as instrumental to fighting the spread of the virus. In order to expand this capacity, the package contains $10 million for a public health campaign.

Further details about this campaign are scheduled to be announced on Wednesday.

Healthline, which has received three to four times as many calls in recent weeks as it did during the same period last year, will receive an additional $20 million.

“More resources will also go into Healthline, which is currently handling more than 5000 calls per day. Healthline has already boosted staffing by more than a hundred – this extra $20 million will mean more doctors and nurses can be hired to provide clinical advice over the phone to deal with the unprecedented level of demand,” Clark said.

“This will help ensure people can get the right advice and information they need when they need it.”

"These messages can support improvements in hygiene and other personal behaviour to reduce virus transmission. Communication will also be vital to support the social distancing measures which are critical during the containment stage. These measures range from working from home and cancelling mass gatherings, to the more disruptive interventions of school closures and stopping public transport," Baker said.

Primary care facilities will receive a funding boost of around $50 million, in particular for Community Based Assessment Centres – the Government’s take on “fever clinics” launched by countries like Australia and South Korea. Another $30 million will go to ramping up workforce capability for District Health Boards.

Unique measures to respond to the transmissibility of the virus are also being funded. General practitioners and community health providers will be funded to the tune of $20 million for the development and expansion of video conferencing and so-called telehealth. This allows doctors to conduct consultations without coming into physical contact with patients.

Clark also said funding for communities vulnerable to the virus, such as older people and immunocompromised individuals, would be forthcoming.

Read more of Newsroom's Covid-19 coverage here. 

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

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