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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

ORAL QUESTIONS

QUESTIONS TO MINISTERS

Question No. 1—COVID-19 Response

1. CHRIS BISHOP (National) to the Minister for COVID-19 Response: Does he stand by all his policies and actions relating to COVID-19?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): Yes. I think it’s important to emphasise that no case in the community is the same. We learn and adapt and tighten our processes in response to the virus and its variants. There is no one quick-fix solution that can apply in every situation, but I can assure the member and the public that we leave no stone unturned and pursue an aggressive approach for containment so that New Zealanders can enjoy their freedoms.

Chris Bishop: Is it fair to say that the Government is comfortable with a greater level of risk of COVID-19 in the community now compared to, say, six months ago, when Auckland’s gone from level 3 to level 2 even with three new community cases of the UK variant announced yesterday?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: No, I wouldn’t characterise it that way. What I would say is that we’ve got increasing confidence in our track and trace—our test track and trace, if you like—system, which means that we can respond to cases of known origin and contain those without the need for alert level escalation. What we saw over the weekend, on Sunday in particular, was that we had a case where we did not know the origin of that case. We could not rule out that it would have come from community transmission that had previously been undetected, and we needed to assure ourselves and the public that there was not COVID-19 out there spreading through the community that had gone undetected. The significant wave of testing that we have had over the last 72 hours has given us that confidence.

Chris Bishop: Is it concerning that there is a possible genomic link between a case at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in December and a case in the community in February?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: It is possible; the advice that we have had, though, is that it’s highly unlikely. What we’ve indicated with these particular cases is because we don’t know the origin of the cases, we’ll leave no stone unturned to find the origin of the cases. The most likely scenario is that it’s associated with case B’s workplace, which was at the border. That is still the most likely scenario. However, because there are still some question marks over that, we will pursue and investigate any other possibility, no matter how unlikely it is. There was a case that arrived at the Sheraton Four Points late last year where there is not a clear match with the cases we are dealing with at the moment but where there is a more distant match—it’s a B.1.1.7 variant—so we want to just absolutely discount that possibility. So there’s some further investigation going on around that.

Hon Grant Robertson: With respect to that answer, can the Minister confirm the advice of the Institute of Environmental Science and Research that it is highly unlikely that that is the source of this case?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes, I absolutely can confirm that it’s highly unlikely. We’re dealing with a range of unlikely scenarios. That one is amongst the more unlikely of the scenarios.

Chris Bishop: Bearing in mind what he’s just said around question marks still being there around the Four Points case, and what he said earlier—that we still don’t know the origin of this most recent series of cases—was the move announced yesterday to lower Auckland to level 2 in line with the Government’s stated strategy of showing an abundance of caution?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes, absolutely. The move to alert level 3 was in line with our abundance of caution strategy. The reason for escalating alert levels quickly and swiftly was that we could not discount at that point the possibility of community transmission that had been undetected. The widespread testing that we have seen, but particularly where that testing has been taking place, is the piece of the puzzle that gave the Cabinet confidence to accept the advice of Health, and the Director-General of Health in particular, that we could lower the alert level settings yesterday.

Chris Bishop: What did the official Health advice yesterday to Cabinet say about the risk of a return move up to level 3 again, thus creating a yo-yo affect between alert levels?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: I can’t remember the exact wording, but certainly the discussion at the Cabinet indicated that the probability of that is low, related to this case. Now, one of the things about COVID-19 is that whenever a new case emerges, we look at what we know and we look at what we don’t know. So I can’t say that we wouldn’t go back up alert levels, were new cases to emerge that weren’t connected to these cases, for example. But where new cases emerge that are clearly connected to the cases that we’re dealing with at the moment, we have the confidence that our contact tracing, our testing, and our isolation processes are sufficient to contain that risk without the need for higher alert levels. We are not yet back down to alert level 1 at Auckland because there is still some risk there. That’s why we continue to be at alert level 2 in Auckland.

Hon Grant Robertson: Can the Minister confirm that alert level 2 of the alert level framework does take into account the fact that there may be cases in the community, but we believe that they can be controlled?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: Yes. That is exactly what the four-level alert level framework that we have designed allows us to do. Now, level 2 is a step up from level 1, and that is where Auckland still is at the moment. We’re satisfied that around the rest of the country, were any cases to emerge that are linked to these ones, again, we’d look at those based on their merits, but our contact tracing systems are good. They have demonstrated how good they are in the previous cases that we dealt with late last year.

Chris Bishop: Has the Government started any work on updating the sophistication of the alert level system in light of Professor Baker’s comments around how the alert level system needs to be improved and move on and be more granular in its application?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: One of the most important things about our alert level system is that the public of New Zealand need to understand it, so they need to understand what is expected of them at each alert level. So we’ve now had plenty of time for New Zealanders to get used to what’s required of them at level 2, level 3, level 4, and even at level 1. We have made refinements. I would reject the notion that we haven’t continued to refine the system. For example, the changing policy around the use of masks is one of the things that we have put in place. We didn’t have QR codes compulsory early on, and we have now got compulsory display of QR codes. So we continue to refine the system, but what we don’t want to do is create a situation where people, on a daily basis, when they get out of bed in the morning, don’t know what they’re expected to do.

Chris Bishop: Who was he talking about when he said in the House on Tuesday that some epidemiologists “should know better”, and what was he referring to?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS: The member should consider my quote in the full context in which it was made. The point that I was making was that when people refer to failure at the border in relation to specific incursions, the people who work at the border—who get out of bed every day and go to work to keep themselves, their families, and the New Zealand community safe—see that as a direct criticism of their work, and people should be careful when they make those kind of bald statements. They are unfair. There will be cases of COVID-19 that make it past the border. That is not a sign that people who work at the border have failed.

MIL OSI