Comment

Why urgency, not gradualism, is needed for Covid-19

Sam Morgan argues the usual governmental gradualism isn't enough to deal with the Covid-19 threat. He calls for more aggressive social distancing and testing measures because "each day of urgency will save lives"

I've been working full time to respond to the Covid-19 threat through whatever I can do with investors, philanthropists and the companies I'm connected with to prevent New Zealanders from dying unnecessarily.

And I'm at a loss as to why more is not being done: we're simply not going fast enough. Our Government seems committed to a failed policy of gradualism dressed up as faux-decisiveness. Our leaders and political systems are designed for peacetime. We have no experience of wartime. Our systems don’t understand needing to move before you have the data you would like. The data may not be here in New Zealand yet, but it is certainly there in front of governments in Italy, US, UK, Spain and so on.

Our best and only chance to get on top of this virus is to do lots of testing and to implement strict social distancing. Starting out with a softly, softly approach, as we did by asking tourists to self isolate, won't work. The Prime Minister was forced yesterday to impose a proper border closure after being surprised and disappointed that some tourists weren't complying.

Incrementalism might work in normal times when you're trying to soften up voters for a policy change, but it doesn't work when you're fighting a deadly virus and dealing with the biggest economic crisis in our lifetimes.

That applies to mass gatherings too. We've gone from any more than 500 being banned earlier in the week to 100 now. Presumably, the Government will move this down to 50 to show clear leadership next? Why not go to strict social distancing immediately? That's what the science and experience overseas has shown to work.

Time wasted asking nicely

Asking tourists to politely isolate was of course never going to work. Our leaders seem to be trying out all the things we know are not going to work before doing things properly.

The Prime Minister's sharp change of direction on testing earlier this week was another example of that. See Marc Daalder's report from Wednesday on how the Government did more testing on Tuesday (620) than in the previous 45 days combined, but only after the WHO and the Opposition urged more testing in the wake of a key academic paper. See Marc's analysis from yesterday for more detail on why strict distancing works to reduce the damage.

The World Health Organisation had a clear message this week on the three key steps; testing, testing and testing.

Tuesday's 620 tests a day for a population of five million is low. South Korea, population 51m, is testing 12-15,000 a day, with a capacity to do up to 20,000. They test twice as many a day per head of population as what we have done in total. It has arguably been the country that has been the most successful in combating the virus following a community outbreak.

We will get there, but the scale of this health disaster could be 10 times bigger than it should be because of this lack of urgency on social isolation and testing. We need to take some bold, economy-hurting and unpopular steps to prevent unnecessary deaths.

Every day is precious

We know that every day we delay effective social distancing we add 40 percent more cases. And this probably means even more than 40 percent more deaths because once you hit a level the hospitals are overwhelmed and they can’t cope. We know we can’t cope with an uncontrolled outbreak. Just talk to a few emergency doctors.

They know what is coming and they are under-resourced, under-prepared and terrified. The longer we take to do what is needed, the bigger the peak and the longer the economic shutdown.

Cancel the weddings

I have a mate in the South Island, who is also laying off a large number of staff, who is off to a wedding this weekend. Presumably this wedding will be responsible and have 99 people only? He was just happy he hadn’t visited his accountant the day before as planned, because that person tested positive and is now in isolation.

I have a relative who is a midwife in the South Island and she thinks she has had coronavirus, but is now better. Health authorities won’t test her and they haven’t given her the (Personal Protective Equipment) PPE she has asked for. So she’s off to see pregnant women today...

Why are we so special?

We are deluded if we think we’re going to be the world's first country to have cases and then not progress to the community transmission phase. We should assume that community transmission will be happening already. That has been the story of every other country. We don’t need to get our own data on this.

Why are we even waiting until we get community transmission before we take the next steps? We should be taking action now on the assumption it will happen.

Schools and offices will be shut down. It’s coming and we’re just choosing to have a much bigger disaster than necessary by not taking action now.

Parabolic growth doesn't respect gradualism

Being on a go-slow makes this so much worse because of the speed of change. It feels fast, but it is way too slow still. It's almost predictable what we are going to see announced each day: just take what should be done now and add two or three weeks.

This is a social experiment that will kill people. Many people I meet still think it is “just the flu”, that the Government is on top of it and if anything people are overreacting. They are going about their lives having birthday parties and hugging grandma, taking comfort in the fact it is not in their neighbourhood. With 620 tests done across the entire population in a day (up from an average 11 a day before then) no one really knows the scale of the problem.

Do we really need to wait for the full car crash?

People may think that this renewed call for urgency is a type of over-reaction or that we risk panic.

They thought I was crazy to criticise the Government for not shutting down Pasifika in this piece published on Newsroom nine days ago. That seems like another era, but it's the same virus and we're in the same world. It's interesting how the Government got Phil Goff to walk that one back to manage the PR, missing a great chance to show humility and get people to understand how fast this virus is moving.

Why are we consistently taking bold steps two to three weeks late? The cost politically would appear similar. We are going to end in lock-down. Is the problem MMP?

See how others did it

We are not China, Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore. They were prepared and acted quickly because they had seen SARS and learnt their lessons.

We are Italy. Or Spain. Or Germany. Or the USA or France. Or Switzerland or the U.K. Or perhaps we are more like Switzerland or Netherlands or Austria or Sweden or Norway or Denmark. All of these countries have over 1,000 cases now, have community transmission and they’re all going exponential.

Do we think this is not happening? Covid-19 is here in New Zealand now, we have more data than we will ever need from all the other countries in front of us on this so we should be taking the small window we have to take the proper actions.

Are the Government projecting confidence over reality ? I know they’re working hard, and are good people and tired. I know they are working with the data they have. But they are too slow and indecisive. Australia will have 1,000 cases by Monday. It is currently at 709.

Why wait for the proof of community transmission before closing our schools and universities and moving to much stricter social isolation?

Go there now. It will save lives.

No one in Cabinet should look back in a decade or two and wonder if only we had moved faster. There is no time to lose.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners