Thursday, April 23, 2020

We got lucky

There's a lot to be grateful for in our pandemic response. By closing the borders and locking down early, New Zealand has avoided a runaway epidemic, overloaded hospitals, mass-death and the psychological scars that go with it. And that's something I think the government and the Ministry of Health deserve our thanks for. But it could have been very different, and an audit of contact tracing has shown that our success could easily have been a failure:

An under-resourced contact tracing system blamed for keeping New Zealand in lockdown has the capacity to investigate fewer than 200 coronavirus cases each day.

An audit of the system released on Monday showed that health officials tasked with interviewing and tracking the close contacts of people with Covid-19 had been swamped by fewer than 100 daily cases of the virus prior to New Zealand entering lockdown.

To prevent any future outbreak of the virus running rampant, the critical audit recommended the contact tracing system be able to manage 1000 new cases each day, and trace their contacts within five days.

How did we end up in this situation? Because responsibility for contact-tracing was devolved to a dozen public health units across the country, each with different levels of capability depending on DHB priorities. And of course, those priorities have been eroded by decades of austerity and a focus on meeting targets, none of which relate to public health or infectious disease. Meaning that when the epidemic came, we weren't really prepared, and we had to build a national capability to do this practically overnight, and clearly got some things wrong (like using anonymous numbers for calls. Well, duh, you might as well say "spammer", and its no wonder a huge number of people refuse to answer).

So, we got lucky. That doesn't detract in any way from the incredible work done by the Ministry of Health and the rest of the government in keeping us safe (for the moment). But it does show us what we need to do in the future if we want to keep being lucky. And its another potent reminder of the dangers of austerity. The National Party, with their focus on budget cuts, "doing more with less", and "waste", could have killed us all. Let's not make that same mistake in the future.