Coronavirus: Auditor identifies 'a lot of uncertainty' about COVID-19 outbreak contingency plans

An auditor has identified "a lot of uncertainty" about the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 contingency plans, just as Wellington faces an outbreak scare. 

The Auditor-General's office published a report in May about the Government's preparations for the nationwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and noted how there were not enough preparations in place of a coronavirus outbreak. 

"More work is needed to ensure that contingency plans are in place in case the vaccine is not delivered to New Zealand on time or in the quantities expected, or if there are other disruptions such as a further community outbreak of COVID-19 that affects the vaccine rollout."

In an update to the Health Select Committee at Parliament on Wednesday, senior performance auditor Kate Williams said she was not satisfied the Ministry of Health had sufficient contingency plans in place, and it come as Wellington faces a COVID outbreak scare. 

"There's a lot of uncertainty with this programme, with the programme itself and other developments, like what we're seeing today," Williams told the committee. 

"We wanted to know what the back-up plan was and what would happen if things went wrong or if something changed and we think more could have been done on those sorts of contingencies.

"We only saw quite limited planning discussions being had about different contingencies... we didn't see any detailed plans or planning."

Wellington has been thrust into alert level 2 after an Australian travelled to the capital on Saturday and returned on Monday, following visits to several locations. Four contacts have tested negative, but alert level restrictions will remain until midnight on Sunday as a precaution. 

Williams indicated to the committee there are several areas the Government needs to improve regarding its COVID-19 response. She said plans to ramp up the delivery of vaccines at the end of July - with some 76,000 doses required per day to vaccinate every Kiwi by the end of the year - will be a "massive challenge". 

Senior performance auditor Kate Williams of the Auditor-General's office.
Senior performance auditor Kate Williams of the Auditor-General's office. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

She acknowledged the Government faced a lot of uncertainty with rolling out jabs, but said effective communication had been lacking about the roll-out. 

"Certainly, at the time we did the report, we don't think that was being communicated as well as it could have been, and there wasn't good public understanding about the certainty of supply and when things would be delivered. I don't think that uncertainty has necessarily changed. That's just the nature of buying COVID vaccines."

Williams said there has been "some improvement". 

"We did talk to representatives of pharmacies and GPs about their experience and how they've been involved. We would agree that at the time we did the audit there hadn't been as good engagement with those groups as there could have been, and the ministry recognised that and has been trying to improve its engagement with those groups."

She said that was an example of decisions being made "late" about the vaccine. The Government didn't decide until the beginning of this year that it would only use Pfizer, whereas other countries have been using a mix of brands. 

Williams said she has seen the Government's contract with Pfizer, which is highly sensitive. She said it does include an indicative schedule of delivery but understood why officials were careful about sharing the information, as it was all up to Pfizer.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week Pfizer will be giving four weeks' notice about its deliveries as the vaccine roll-out ramps up. COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Wednesday 50,000 doses were expected this week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

He said 1 million doses have now been administered, with more than 300,000 New Zealanders fully vaccinated with two doses. 

"I do want to reassure New Zealanders that we have always had plans in place for situations like this and that is what we are working through now," Hipkins said. "Our contact tracers are currently working at pace and they have been since they were first notified of this case last night."

Williams said the level of vaccine wastage has dropped. In April it was 3.7 percent, and at the time of the Auditor-General's report, Capital Coast District Health Board had wasted 1000 doses. Williams said the wastage rate is now around 1 percent. 

The Government is now coming under fire for informing Wellingtonians about locations of interest the infected Sydney traveler visited, at around the same time people were leaving to go to work. 

"What is very clear is that the locations of interest in Wellington were not available to people until after they got to work in Wellington this morning and they should have been available significantly earlier," said National leader Judith Collins. 

She praised local companies for posting messages on social media letting their customers know they were locations of interest before the Ministry of Health published them. 

"I think they can be told at the same time. I don't think there's any particular reason why they couldn't be told at the same time. The point surely has to be the protection of the public."

Ardern said the Government followed all the right steps. 

"I have absolute confidence in our officials."