Michael Morrah: Blame for COVID-19 quarantine, PPE fails lies squarely with Ministry of Health

OPINION: Recent developments over quarantine breaches in New Zealand’s "go hard, go early" COVID19 fight are deeply troubling. 

World news outlets have lavished praise on New Zealand as a country that has led the way in eliminating COVID19. 

People have called for Dr Ashley Bloomfield to be knighted. Tea towels and carry bags featuring his portrait have been snapped up. Dr Bloomfield is seen as a hero to be worshipped.

And yet the reality of our health response actually tells a story that is far from worthy.

Let me start with PPE.

I’ve reported very persistently on this issue. Health workers couldn’t get it. Nurses were instructed to remove masks. 

Those working on COVID-19 wards at Waitakere and Burwood Hospitals didn’t feel fully protected, and had gear that didn’t fit. Hundreds of thousands of old masks kept in pandemic storage had perished. 

But while all this was going on, the reassurances from Dr Bloomfield came as quickly as the complaints. The Auditor General John Ryan has now validated the concerns of health workers. 

In a nutshell, the claims of having "plenty" of PPE did not stack up. 

Dr Bloomfield’s reassuring comments about staff needing to “feel safe and be safe” and wear masks if they wanted led to “confusion”, when the Ministry’s guidelines for PPE use were actually much narrower. 

In February 2020, according to the Auditor General, the Ministry of Health actually had no idea how much PPE DHBs had, nor did it know how to forecast future demand. 

The reserve stocks that DHBs did have were suitable for population sizes in 2005. There’s been a population growth rate of 19 per cent since then. 

Importantly, the Health Ministry had stopped requiring DHBs to report what PPE stocks they had, and what had expired, back in 2016. That’s an incredibly basic failure in terms of having a robust pandemic plan. 

Fourteen DHBs had actually reported to the Health Ministry that their stock had expired or they had no national reserve stock at all. When I was first tipped off about expired PPE, the Ministry was anything but forthcoming. In fact staff at the Ministry bent over backwards to avoid revealing the true extent of the problem. 

This brings me to the next point about the multiple quarantine fails. We’ve had lots of updates about no new cases, our strict border measures and the team of five million. 

Yet it took a journalist’s question on Tuesday before Dr Bloomfield acknowledged that two teenagers let out of quarantine to attend a gang tangi had run away afterwards. What occurred here is really important. If the pair had been COVID-19 positive, it would have been even more concerning. 

It’s interesting that this potentially very significant matter was basically hidden from the public until someone found out. It also raises questions about what else is being left out or watered down during the daily updates. 

What we now know for certain is that the two COVID-19 positive women allowed out of quarantine at the Novotel didn’t follow all the rules. The claim by Dr Bloomfield that they “did everything that was asked of them” and didn’t have any interaction with the public wasn’t true. 

The pair actually stopped on the way to ask friends for directions, embracing them as they continued their journey south.

I accept that Dr Bloomfield may not have had all the information when he informed the nation on Tuesday that the Auckland to Wellington road trip went without a hitch, but if that was the case, why didn’t he tell the public this instead of being blatantly misleading. 

The quarantine blunders (yes there have been multiple) amount to sheer incompetence and poor communication from the Ministry of Health. 

We’ve heard so much about the importance of our borders and yet we don’t require returning travellers to wear masks at the border, or in quarantine, nor do we test travellers as they land in Auckland. 

Even the Ministry’s directive to test people three days after they’ve been in managed self-isolation is not being followed. 

There must be accountability and a full explanation over what’s been happening at our apparently watertight borders, and over what’s occurred at our quarantine sites. 

I don’t believe blame lies with the workers left dealing with a hotel full of quarantined travellers. They should not lose their jobs or face sanctions. 

The blame lies squarely with the Health Ministry and questions must be asked about whether or not their guidance, training and oversight was robust. Failure and ineptitude at this level is hardly confidence inspiring. 

As I reported on Wednesday, another serious blunder occurred in Christchurch with up to 10 people being let out of quarantine early for a burial. That’s despite rules issued by the Ministry on June 9 stating that exemptions for funerals are not allowed. 

Remarkably, the Health Minister David Clark didn’t seem to know about any other breaches apart from what happened at the Novotel. 

This is nothing short of astonishing. 

If you’re the minister, and the borders are our biggest defence, surely you would be getting daily updates about who has been exempted, for what reason, and from which quarantine site. Surely it would be critical you receive confirmation that those who do get out have returned a negative test result. 

I guess this all comes back to the mismatch about what the public is told, and what’s actually happening in reality. It’s about transparency and credibility and in my opinion, some leaders in this response are failing on both these fronts. 

If anyone should be knighted, it should be the nurses who worked on Waitakere Hospital's COVID-19 ward.

I think New Zealanders should pause and think about this while they’re busy drying dishes with their Bloomfield tea towels. 

Michael Morrah is Newshub's Investigations Reporter.