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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

DAVID SEYMOUR (Leader—ACT): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I rise in response to the Minister’s statement. I’ve said on, I think it was, 24 March, when this House met before the country went into level 4 lockdown, that it is the role of Opposition parties to offer constructive criticism where necessary and to make helpful suggestions where possible. Unfortunately, at this point, the criticisms are the easiest category of that feedback, because we have just seen so many basic failings, the most obvious being the need to test people. You know, the person found today at the Rydges was only found to be infected because of the recent scare leading to a much more robust testing regime than the Government had been happy to tolerate up until this point. Had it not been for the scare and the increase in testing, that person would be out in the community and we would be none the wiser.

But the other criticism that we might make is that we’ve had 102 days of COVID freedom, which we should have been using to mend the holes and prepare for this eventuality that even the Director-General of Health said was inevitable. We instead chose to spend time doing a little dance and engaging in a victory lap, which has not led to us being prepared for this outbreak, and it’s interesting to look at which Australian states the Government has chosen to compare us with. We hear constantly, “It’s so lucky that we are not Victoria.”, forgetting that there are eight other states and territories which are doing considerably better. We chose to use the time for self-congratulation and indulgence rather than improvement, and that is why we are here today.

Enough of the criticism. What about the helpful suggestions? Well, I would say that the Government has an opportunity to do vastly better, if only it was prepared to use something that should be familiar to it, and that is actually a wellbeing approach to managing COVID, because there are a range of challenges to our wellbeing, of which COVID-19 is only one.

Let me identify some of them. The mental health of small-business owners driven to the brink of bankruptcy and beyond by lockdowns is immeasurable. I was in Queenstown talking to people in that community a few weeks ago. They said they had had seven suicides in a fortnight—an outrage. I’ve heard stories of butchers standing on the footpath outside their store in tears because they had had to ditch or freeze all of the stock that they’d got in for the weekend. We’ve got to think about those outcomes—health and mental health. We’ve got to think about the academic wellbeing of students missing high-stakes, make or break exam preparation. We’ve got to think about that, and we’ve got to think about the health of those people who have missed out on screening and elective surgery due to this latest outbreak. If you weigh up all of that, one conclusion you can’t avoid is that lockdowns are incalculably bad for wellbeing before you get into the economics of it.

The ASB tells us it costs $440 million of GDP to lock down Auckland at level 3 for a week. Well, a 16-day lockdown—that’s $1 billion, which happens to be identical to Pharmac’s budget for all taxpayer-funded pharmaceuticals for a whole year. That’s what we’ve just given up, and that takes you to the position that we cannot afford more lockdowns. But what, in the absence of lockdowns, is the solution?

You know, I’ve said that we need to learn to live with it, and I think that’s true. It doesn’t mean learn to die with it; what it means is learn to live with COVID-19 being endemic in the world. That means we’re going to have to find ways to maintain an elimination strategy by being smarter instead of using lockdowns, which are just too damaging to the wellbeing the Government says it believes in. I think if we’re going to do that, then we need to learn from the world leader in preserving wellbeing during this time, which is, of course, Taiwan. Rather than spending the last 102 days of COVID freedom doing victory laps, we should have taken a leaf out of their book, which is continuous improvement, because they had SARS and bird flu and swine flu and dengue fever, and each time they used the opportunity to strengthen and sophisticate their defences. Now, we didn’t have that experience—nobody can claim that they saw this coming before March—but what is unforgivable is the failure to prepare since then.

The first thing we should do is actually mimic their central epidemic control centre. I’m sorry to say it, but as charismatic as their chief executive may be, the Ministry of Health is not the organisation to do manufacturing, procurement, and distribution of PPE. They have failed time and time again at that. They just don’t have those skills. They are not the organisation to do software development. I would wager not a single person in this outbreak was actually identified using the Ministry of Health’s COVID tracing app, and it’s not surprising they failed at software development, because these are the people responsible for the state of patient health records in New Zealand—hardly a surprise. And I would wager that the Ministry of Health are not the right people to set clear rules of the game. That’s why, once again, we are stuck in a scenario where people ask why they must drive past their beloved butcher or greengrocer who’s going broke, in order to shop at a supermarket with a larger group of people in another suburb.

The second thing we should do is understand the role of Government. You know, in Taiwan, if you’re a low risk—and we’ll get to risk—person arriving in the country, you can isolate at an Airbnb but they’ll electronically track you, and if you break the isolation, they’ll find you and they’ll punish you. In New Zealand, the Government doesn’t set the rules of the game. It tries to run isolation by itself, and if the Government’s running it, who’s holding them accountable? Well, Michael Mora, it seems. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have a clue that they weren’t even testing the people who were most exposed to the only people in New Zealand we knew had it. How crazy is that? So, we need to understand the role of Government, and that is to set and enforce the rules of the game, not try and run everything.

The next thing we can learn from Taiwan is actually how to manage risk. You know, we have basically the same treatment for people who come over as 501s from Australia as we have when we try to squeeze in rail tunnel engineers coming to work on the City Rail Link. There is no sense of understanding and managing different risks. We treat people coming from Victoria the same as we treat people coming—or not coming, as the case may be—from Samoa. Again, the total blindness to risk is absolute madness.

The fourth thing we could learn from Taiwan if we had the leadership and the wherewithal is to start using technology. Now, I’m not in a position to recommend or evaluate Sam Morgan’s CovidCard or Datamine’s ëlarm, but the fact that our Government hasn’t even given them a chance while the latter is being bought up by the tens of thousands by foreign healthcare systems is a disgrace when it was home grown. What happened to supporting New Zealand businesses? We’ve got to augment our public health response with technology.

Finally, just as the Taiwanese reflected on swine flu and SARS and bird flu and dengue, we have got to start learning from our experience instead of doing victory laps. The opportunity is to do so much better. The opportunity is to be safe and actually protect all aspects of wellbeing that are currently imperilled so badly by the Government’s strategy of blunt and costly lockdowns.

The question at this election is whether or not the New Zealand people will choose a better way forward or whether we will blindly go on this destructive and unsustainable path none the wiser. I hope people will decide to change their future.