Epidemic Response Committee: Week One
Last week we saw the first three meetings of the Epidemic Response Committee. This committee is made up of members across parliament, with The National party leader, Simon Bridges, as the chair. The other members are:
Hon Ruth Dyson
Hon Paul Goldsmith
Dr Shane Reti
Hon Louise Upston
Hon Michael Woodhouse
The point of this committee is to provide constructive scrutiny of the Government’s response to COVID-19, and doing that to improve the national response over the next month, talking to key members of the response or those who are commentators. James Tapp reports on the first week of meetings:
On the Tuesday meeting that took place on the 31st of March, we saw discussion of what powers lie with the director of health, as well as the police commissioner, which has also seen a handover from Mike Bush to Andrew Coster.
On Tuesday as well as Thursday, we saw a lot of discussion surrounding the powers which police officers hold. While we know there has been an announcement of a state of emergency, police now have access to more powers, there has been considerable pressure within these meetings from the committee to hear exact guidelines or even a summary so the public can be informed. While we have not seen the use of any powers on a significant scale, members such as David Seymour want to see action before these powers have to be used.
We later saw an expansion on this by commissioner Mike Bush, saying the powers have been placed with officers, and it is down to their discretion. While this seems to mean no drastic measures will be taken unless necessary, with Bush adding that the police force has gotten guidance from crown law about how to interpret law, and if offenders are being taken to court, the discretion of officers and interpretation will be tested in court.
The role of the police and how the police act has been a large focus on a national scale, with this focus also translating to the committee. As well as state of emergency powers, last week we also saw a pull back on checking in on those who came from overseas in person, instead moving to an online platform. Those who were self isolating were supposed to be checked up on within 3 days of arriving in the country, however this seemed to have had some flaws, with a story told of how there was no confirmation of identity or any information gained from check ups, only making sure they were at the address they listed.
This leads on to the next big topic which has been discussed at length, which is the arrival of New Zealanders from overseas and their isolation from the general public. On Tuesday it was questioned by Seymour whether those entering should even be held in hubs such as Auckland, or moved out to more remote areas to prevent spread, especially as there seemed to have beena lack in the ability to follow rules, according to Goldsmith. John Ombler, All of Government Controller, said this would not be a problem in relation to where they are located, only that they remain isolated and have things such as shopping done by those who are allowed to. The containment of people arriving was also brought up on thursday, with customs coming under scrutiny for not taking similar precautions as seen overseas.
There was also discussion of health services and the availability of PPE gear, with a quick summary being we have the gear, people need it, yet it does not seem to be transported in a quick enough time or reaching people such as GP’s or midwives. Now this was elaborated on later on Tuesday by Dr. Bloomfield, and a point of importance, which I quote : “ I think it’s hard for front-line health workers to hear “well, you don’t need a mask in this situation” and to not feel they have access to masks, if they then go to the supermarket and see the checkout operators wearing masks.” which was elaborated on further, saying it is a matter of not running out or overusing, and that some discretion as to whether they are needed has been taken away from health workers.
There was also the discussion of how the government is currently handling the situation, especially seeing as we are potentially in a position to completely eliminate the disease from New Zealand due to our early restrictions, unlike many other countries that closed their borders too late. Dr David Skegg stated this on Tuesday, explaining no long term strategy document has been released, with no statement about whether the government plans to just mitigate or to completely eliminate the disease, with the later seen as the more favourable, with the possibility being “huge costs to the economy and to social, cultural, and sporting life” as stated by Dr. Skegg. We seem to have a rare opportunity due to our geography and quick response, with the ability to see a faster recovery than our relative countries. This point was followed up by minister of health, David Clark, which included points such as that without the actions taken so far, we could have been prone to tens of thousands of deaths and that any modelling is done on presumptions based on available evidence, which is still emerging.
An interesting point that was raised and has now become far relevant is the relation between daily newspapers and those publishing on a weekly or a monthly basis. With the level 4 lockdown only daily papers are published in a physical medium, and while COVID-19 was not the cause, we saw the closure of Bauer media last week. While it is not a direct action of the government to close down newspapers permanently, David Seymour did raise the point that we could see some close down for good, potentially something we could see across a number of small businesses.
When looking at businesses there has also been a lot of discussion around how to maintain the economy, with Shamubeel Eaqub, an economist, pointing out that only around a third of the workforce can work from home, and businesses will struggle for a number of months after the lockdown is lifted. Another key point Eaqub makes is that we are in a position where there are no guidelines foro history to go off, as these are such unprecedented times.
Now this is just a small summary of a number of points made by a number of experts and members of the committee, with nine hours of discussion having already taken place. If you are wanting to hear more of the discussion that takes place, all of the previous live streams are on the parliament website, with future live streams available on the parliament website, facebook and vimeo.