Coronavirus: Border fix-it man Sir Brian Roche says Kiwis 'should be thankful' for success so far

One of the Government's fix-it-crew sent in to sort out problems at the border says it won't be the toughest job he's ever had.

Sir Brian Roche, whose background involves chairing a wide range of boards including NZTA and the Hurricanes rugby franchise, was appointed alongside former Prime Minister Helen Clark's chief of staff Heather Simpson to look ways to improve efforts at the border to keep out COVID-19. 

The pair were recently part of a team that looked into the health system. Their latest appointment comes after it emerged border response workers weren't getting tested for the virus as thoroughly as the Government had been led to believe. 

Asked on The AM Show on Friday if it was his toughest gig yet, a calm and collected Sir Brian said "not really". 

"I think we've got a number of people who are genuinely trying to make a difference. I think from the stats... New Zealand has done very well. But there is room for improvement, and that's what we've been asked to do - how can we apply our minds and our experience to work with those in the system to make it a bit better?" 

New Zealand's outbreak came after more than 100 days of no detected community transmission of the virus, which has killed nearly 800,000 people worldwide in recent months. The outbreak, compared to countries such as the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and Australia, is miniscule - despite US President Donald Trump's claims. 

"I think mistakes have been made and it would be wrong to deny that," said Sir Brian. "But we've got to keep it in perspective - we need to have a very safe border. We have to have a border that allows the community and business to operate. 

"I think it's fixable, but there are human beings involved, so there is a management of expectations. It's very, very hard to make it perfect, but we've done very well... We keep beating ourselves up for every fault that we identify. This is unprecedented - there wasn't a manual or a script where people just wheeled it out. We are learning by doing, and we should be thankful for those people who are doing it."

Sir Brian Roche.
Sir Brian Roche. Photo credit: The AM Show

Border politics

The source of the new cluster of a few dozen cases remains a mystery. The National Party is convinced it must have come from a leak at the border, though contact tracing and genome sequencing has yet to find a link at all. Another isolated case in a border hotel maintenance worker has been linked to a returnee from the US, but has not at this stage been linked to a community outbreak.

"I think most people realise that this is incredibly difficult," Labour MP David Parker told The AM Show. "That guy that was the maintenance worker who is now thought to have got COVID by walking into a lift after somebody else we didn't know had COVID, but subsequently was found to have COVID, had been in the lift. That's how hard this is to properly manage." 

On Thursday National unveiled its border policy, which in addition to current measures would create a new agency dedicated to providing "comprehensive oversight and management of COVID-19 at the border", introduce Bluetooth tracing technology, require aged care workers to undergo regular tests and ban entry to New Zealand to anyone who hasn't had a negative test in the days before boarding a plane home.

"In the 100 or so days where we didn't have community transmission, the Government was complacent on behalf of the team of 5 million," former leader Simon Bridges told The AM Show. "They didn't do the things that you would expect them to do - the basic stuff... and as a result of that, that's why right now we see the issues."

'Definitely not failsafe'

Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury expert modeller Michael Plank told Newshub testing aged care workers would be a good idea, but was sceptical forcing returning Kiwis to get a test before they came home would do much good.

"It would miss people infected in the three or four days prior to travel, and during travel as well, in transit. Potentially it's a small extra layer, but definitely not failsafe. We'd still need 14 days' quarantine on top of that." 

He also said no amount of testing at the border would guarantee there wouldn't be any outbreaks.

"I think it's important to recognise we may still need to use the alert level controls that we have... in response to an outbreak." 

National leader Judith Collins earlier this month said the coronavirus "simply would not be allowed in" under National. Sir Brian said over the next few years, that would be unlikely.

"This virus, no one knows where it is going to come next. In a way I compare it to like what happens in Australia - every year there's going to be bushfires, but you don't know where and you don't know how severe. That's the approach and attitude that we have to have to this virus."