Jacinda Ardern brushes off COVID-19 communication criticism as Chris Hipkins rejects Auditor-General's contingency concerns

The Prime Minister is brushing off coronavirus communication criticism as her COVID-19 Response Minister rejects an auditor's concerns about outbreak contingency plans. 

The Government came under fire on Wednesday for informing the public about locations of interest the infected Sydney traveller visited, at around the same time Wellingtonians 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

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday she was pleased with the Ministry of Health's communication so far, describing it as "very, very clear". 

"Yes, absolutely," Ardern told reporters, when asked if she was satisfied with the Ministry of Health's communication. 

"You see on the Ministry of Health website very, very clear instructions of those that we wish to be in isolation for 14 days and those that we wish to be in isolation until receiving a test at the appropriate time, right next to the venues for those people we'd like to follow through on those instructions," she said. 

"So, very, very clear for those affected."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins also defended the communication in Parliament on Thursday, after National MP Chris Bishop asked why Unity Books was not listed as a location of interest until 11:43am, when the District Health Board contacted them at 9:30am. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins are both satisfied with the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 communication despite criticism.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins are both satisfied with the Ministry of Health's COVID-19 communication despite criticism. Photo credit: Newshub

"The team worked right the way through the night without sleeping in order to assemble the locations of interest so that they could be released as quickly as possible in Wednesday morning. The details of the case were released at around 6am," Hipkins said. 

"I do want to compliment the team on the speedy work that they did trying to identify the locations of interest, the extent of risk in each of those locations of interest, and the public health requirements for the people who had been in those locations of interest, so quickly. 

"They did incredibly well, particularly bearing in mind the people they were contacting were waking up in the middle of the night in order to get further information from them."

Hipkins hit back at the backlash. 

"There's been criticisms today about the drip-feeding of locations of interest which is also criticism coming from the same people who've been saying we haven't been fast enough to release information about the locations of interest," he said. 

"It can't be both."

Wellington was thrust into alert level 2 after an Australian travelled to the capital on Saturday for the weekend and visited several locations. All COVID tests in Wellington have come back negative so far, but alert level restrictions will remain until midnight on Sunday as a precaution. 

The outbreak scare came just as senior performance auditor Kate Williams from the Auditor-General's office told a parliamentary committee she was not satisfied the Ministry of Health had sufficient vaccine contingency plans in place in the case of community transmission. 

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

Hipkins disagreed with the auditor. 

"This is an area where I do disagree with the Auditor-General. The Government has made the decision that the best place for vaccines is in the arms of people. Keeping a whole lot of vaccines in the freezer as a contingency... isn't something the Government has contemplated."

Bishop asked if that meant the Government had not done any detailed scenario planning regarding what a vaccination campaign would look like in the event of community transmission.

"No, that is not what I indicated," Hipkins said.

"In this particular context, where we have a limited supply of vaccines, stopping the vaccine roll-out to vulnerable people in other parts of the country in order to increase the vaccine roll-out in Wellington, would not be consistent with good public health practice."

Sydney COVID cluster

New South Wales health officials have confirmed an epidemiological link of the COVID-positive traveller to the Bondi cluster in Sydney, providing reassurance he did not contract COVID-19 in Wellington.

"We have access ourselves to what we call the index case so the person we need to interview and that means we don't need to have an intermediary there - we can talk directly to the person we need to talk to and that's the most important thing," Ardern said. 

The Government paused quarantine-free travel with New South Wales at midnight on Tuesday for 72 hours as the number of community cases in Sydney continued to rise. 

"What we always look for is whether or not cases were linked and as soon as we saw in New Zealand unlinked cases emerge in New South Wales, we very quickly shut the border," Ardern said. 

"That's the way we've operated the border until now and that's led to three pauses. You'll see often we'll shut down borders before even within Australia they have been."

But Kiwis stuck in the Australian state shouldn't expect a contingency plan from the Government.   

"As we said right from the outset, when we opened up the bubble we asked those travelling just to be aware that there may be times when we have to pause travel arrangements and to build that into their contingency, and by and large, I think travelers have done that."