The good news is that the government has sought independent advice on Covid Policy. The bad news is that the advice is abysmal.
Back in June Associate Minister of Health (Public Health) Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall asked the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group to report on the following: “Is an elimination strategy still viable as international travel resumes”.
Let’s begin with the question. I have never known a Minister to ask whether a policy or strategy is viable. They usually seek guidance on whether a policy is any good. Or better yet, they seek out good policy.
It might well be viable for the New Zealand government to send someone to the moon. But being viable doesn’t make it sensible. The question the Minister posed is nonsense.
The Advisory Group is chaired by Sir David Skegg and comprises public health specialists. The only thing worse than the Minister's question is the Advisory Group answer.
“In our current view, the elimination strategy is still viable and, indeed, optimal as international travel resumes. It does not mean “Zero COVID”, but it does mean stamping out clusters of COVID-19 as they occur.”
The Advisory Group concludes that not only is the manned moon shot viable but is optimal. It’s the very best of policies.
More extraordinarily, the Group decided the optimal policy without considering any alternatives and with no regard to its costs. The Government may well have hit upon the optimal policy but the Advisory Group can’t decide that without regard to any alternative or cost.
The Independent Group of experts report, in effect, "Minister, not only is your policy viable, it's optimal!"
I doubt tyrants of old received such congratulatory nonsense from their courtiers. How Ministers must have smiled to learn that the very policy they are following happens to be the very best of policies possible.
When Mike Hosking had Minister Stuart Nash under the gun this past Wednesday, the Minister invoked the experts: “I think the elimination strategy is the right one and that’s not just me. That’s Professor David Skegg, world epidemiologist expert. We listen to the experts…. I’m following David Skegg. He is an expert. He has studied this.”
It’s a perfect Panglossian policy circle. The experts endorse the policy. The government quotes the experts.
The report itself provides the usual scaremongering epidemiologists are now famous for. “In addition to the profound ethical issue, unchecked replication of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in many countries is sparking the emergence of new variants that threaten us all.” There’s not a skerrick of evidence that COVID threatens us all; indeed, the disease risk is tightly focussed.
The Advisory Group reviewed the past year-and-a-half to give the Government a good pat on the back: “There is no doubt that this [elimination] strategy has served us well”. That’s because COVID has killed fewer in New Zealand than Scotland.
The Group sees the cost of achieving such a result as minimal:
“Although some sectors of our economy, such as international tourism, have been badly affected, the New Zealand economy has recovered more quickly and more strongly than experts predicted. Moreover, our social and community life has flourished, in comparison with countries where repeated lockdowns and restrictions on gatherings (even of families) have made the past 15 months a time of frustration and grief.”
The experts demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the cost to families and businesses of this past year-and-a-half. They also show their only focus as lives saved without regard to costs or benefits. For them, New Zealand has been the best of all possible worlds with the Advisory Group unable to disentangle the effects of the virus and the effects of the policy. The “frustration and grief” in Scotland is caused by policy not the virus.
The congratulations is of no surprise. The government is following public health dictates. The problem is the complete lack of rigour the public health experts bring to policy making. They only consider the virus, the sickness, the death, and not the effect their policies have on social and business life. Their policy prescription has been overly narrow and excessively devastating.
The Advisory Group foresaw there might be the need for some lockdowns:
Obviously an aim would be to minimise the need for raising alert levels, with the economic and social costs these impose. Nevertheless, some localised elevations of alert levels may be unavoidable after borders are reopened.
As I type this the entire country is plunged into lockdown Alert Level 4 with no end in clear sight. But no matter:
Stamping out clusters of COVID-19 as they arise will mean that our health system is not overwhelmed by large numbers of patients requiring health care.
For Public Health experts we must serve the health system rather than have the health system serve us.
New Zealand has the opportunity to continue to enjoy a lifestyle that is relatively unaffected by the ravages of COVID-19.
Of course, the effect of lockdown on the experts is minimal. Not so the rest of us.
I am looking forward to the future Royal Commission having tallied the costs and asking, “Tell me again, Sir David, how you and your group came to decide the elimination policy was optimal?”