Coronavirus: Call for expert group to take over COVID-19 response from politicians

A university professor has called on the Government to relinquish control of the COVID-19 response to an expert health group, to lessen the risks political decisions will get in the way of a good health response. 

New Zealand's handling of the pandemic has been hailed internationally, and we're one of the last few countries in the world without any local transmission of the virus, which has killed millions over the past 18 months. 

But the Government is "taking a punt" by allowing Kiwis to come home from parts of Australia without self-isolating or going into managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman told Newshub Nation on Saturday

The Government on Friday paused the trans-Tasman travel bubble for eight weeks, with outbreaks of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 in Victoria and New South Wales (NSW). However, Kiwis arriving over the next seven days from other parts of Australia won't have to go into MIQ or self-isolate at home - despite the country's porous state borders allowing the virus to spread between jurisdictions.

Dr Gorman said the decision is partly due to a lack of rooms in MIQ, but the Government was also "trying to manage the optics", with many Kiwis otherwise left stranded. MIQ slots are booked out for months, and new ones that appear are snapped up in seconds.

"One of the problems with the politicisation of any health response is that it's hard enough managing the health risk and the economic risk, but when you have electoral risk as well, it's very, very difficult. We've seen politicians all around the world struggle to get the balance right. It's a matter of what's the right thing to do, versus what's the thing the public would like to see me do?"

He said Australians are clearly fed up with ongoing restrictions, ignoring lockdown measures and prolonging the outbreak. Even without COVID-19 in the community, Kiwis will eventually want more travel freedoms back - particularly when most of us are vaccinated, hopefully later this year.

"There's going to come a point where the desire to go back to life as normal becomes so overwhelming, it will become almost unmanageable. We're seeing that in Sydney now. The Premier gets up and says there's 100 new cases of which 40 to 50 were wandering around the community - clearly when she said 'go home, stay home', a lot of Australians said 'no thank you'."

Dr Gorman condemned the UK's decision to do away with restrictions right in the middle of a surge in cases thanks to the Delta variant. When case numbers were low earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised an "irreversible" roadmap towards opening up - and while there was a brief delay, he stuck to the plan.

There are now more than 40,000 new cases being reported every day, with that expected to rise now restrictions are gone. Luckily two-thirds of Brits have been vaccinated, reducing the likelihood deaths will rise to the levels seen during the massive wave at the start of the year. 

"I think it's early, I think it's precipitous, I think it's probably dangerous," said Dr Gorman. "But I understand why it became a political necessity."

To avoid the same happening here, he wants the COVID response to be handled by someone other than politicians.

"I think we also have got to the point - and this is true for most countries around the world - where we need to start shifting the way we govern and manage the pandemic. If you think about the way in which we govern ACC, the Super Fund, it's at arm's length from politics - it's an expert governance group. 

"The Government makes it clear to the group what its expectations are, but then gets out of the way of people who are actually experts."