Michael Woodhouse: Government’s handling of outbreaks not good enough

Opinion 31/01/2020

By Michael Woodhouse, National Party Spokesperson for Health, List MP.

In light of the coronavirus and the concerns being caused by the outbreak, the spotlight has again been shone on our Government’s handling of issues relating to infectious diseases, and again they’re proving to be ill-equipped to look after New Zealand.

Responses to these events need to be timely, organised and well-communicated, the Government has failed on these three counts each time.

In the last year we’ve had a meningococcal outbreak in Northland and a measles crisis, both of which could have been largely avoided with sensible management and leadership from the Government. We’re now expected to have confidence in that Government to manage the coronavirus outbreak.

The failed Northland Meningitis vaccination campaign saw schools fundraising for their own vaccines, and the Government ran out of flu vaccines in June. Instead of learning from their mistakes we again saw a shortage of vaccines occur with the Measles outbreak and now it’s hard to have any faith in the Government’s ability to respond to outbreaks. In fact even the Prime Minister doesn’t have faith in her Minister in charge of public health, as she took Julie Anne Genter off the case of coronavirus due to a lack of confidence in her abilities.

Immunisation rates under National were improving.

This was partly due to health targets, which keep the Ministry, PHARMAC and medical professionals accountable for ensuring New Zealanders are protected from dangerous diseases. When Minister Clark scrapped these targets, the Government took their eye off the ball, and the sector followed suit.

National believes in targets as people pay attention to what is recorded and monitored meaning standards stay high as a result. A National Government would reinstate these targets and ensure our Health system becomes more responsive and efficient.

The coronavirus response so far has been consistently a step behind where it should be. They took too long to put precautionary measures in place, too long to start issuing communications to reassure and educate the public and too long to act on evacuating New Zealanders stuck in Wuhan.

While other countries were in the midst of or planning to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, New Zealand’s Prime Minister was saying that it’s ‘very difficult’ and wouldn’t confirm if the Government would even do so. While the rest of the world was taking the situation seriously our Government appeared to be sitting on its hands. Thankfully with help from our allies across the Tasman we’re hopefully getting closer to helping the New Zealanders stuck in Wuhan.

When you consider the time of the year it is, with thousands of students coming into the country, the lack of communications to education providers has been appalling. The Ministry needed to immediately provide information to educational institutions on what they should be doing about international students arriving from China or domestic students who have holidayed in China.

A National Government wouldn’t have mucked around and would have immediately ensured there were regular briefings to the New Zealand public on what was occurring, advice on how people can stay safe, ensured there was enough protective equipment available to health practitioners and would have initiated precautionary measures such as actively screening passengers much earlier.

When it comes to disease outbreaks this Government has consistently failed to look after Kiwis. There needs to be a great deal more urgency and transparency than they have shown so far.

Michael Woodhouse is National Party Spokesperson for Health and List MP.