Covid 19 coronavirus: Comment - New Health Minister Chris Hipkins sweeps in to clear up the mess
Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. COMMENT There are hands-off ministers and hands-on ministers. Judging by the border bungle and the failure to test people in managed isolation when they should have been tested, David Clark appeared to be the former. The first question that arose when those failures came to light was: Why wasn't the minister demanding daily updates to ensure it was happening? Chris Hipkins has been Health Minister for less than a week and already appears to have plastered his hands all over his new ministry. The ministry's information isn't good enough. The testing levels aren't good enough. That was the clear message at his first solo press conference in the Beehive Theatrette as Health Minister today. 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We were told the level of testing and the criteria were fine back in March. They weren't . We were told self-isolation was working when the police checks to ensure compliance weren't happening . We were assured about contact-tracing when the Health Ministry was furiously scrambling to build capacity from a woeful starting point . We were told that personal protective equipment issues were being resolved, but kept in the dark about the extent of the problems that were later revealed by the Auditor-General . Hipkins could have told us there was nothing unusual in the lower testing rates and there was nothing to worry about. Instead he shared public health advice that there should be 4000 tests in the community to ensure confidence that there was no community transmission. This is rather important. A drop off in testing throws doubt on the elimination status of Covid-19, even if all our cases remain in isolation and there are no positive tests in the community. Only once since June 27 has the number of tests been over 4000. There were only about 1100 tests yesterday, discounting the tests at quarantine and managed isolation facilities. That could be because of testing criteria - which was changed on June 25 - the disease definition, or the practice of clinicians. Cabinet signed off on the surveillance testing plan last week, so why isn't it happening? Hipkins didn't give hollow assurances. He said he had made the Government's expectations clear, there was "absolute urgency", he had had a stern word with health officials this morning and would grill them again on Thursday. He expected testing to increase within days. Furthermore, he said people had become complacent and he pleaded to the public to use the Covid Tracer app. Usually the ministry releases the cumulative number of scanned QR codes, which sheds no light on how many times they're scanned each day. The ministry, for the first time today, released the daily average of scans - and it's less than 10,000, or 0.2 per cent of the population if - and this is a big "if" - everyone is only scanning one QR code a day. Hipkins has also demanded more meaningful testing data. The numbers need to be broken down into daily tests in quarantine or managed isolation facilities, testing of workers at the border, and testing in the wider community. It defies belief that the ministry wasn't already doing this. It has been asked for repeatedly by Otago University public health experts . For months. Hipkins was, of course, generous to Clark when asked if he was cleaning up the mess he was left with. He said diplomatically that he is bringing a "fresh set of eyes", and that the PM and Clark had both asked about the low testing numbers last week. But they didn't tell us that. As Health Minister, Clark should have been front and centre of the Covid response and a national celebrity, given New Zealand's success. Instead celebrity status fell upon Bloomfield, and Clark's fate was sealed when he appeared to dump on New Zealand's Covid hero as Bloomfield stood dejectedly in the background . The public outcry was in many ways unfair. Bloomfield had already accepted the blame for the border failures, and Clark didn't say anything that day that he hadn't been saying for the previous week. He may have indeed been an effective behind-the-scenes minister who, as the PM has said repeatedly, played a crucial role in the Covid response. But he appeared to be hands-off. He was based in Dunedin during the heights of the crisis. In stand-ups with media, he never left reporters with the impression that he was across every nook and cranny of the health response, or that he was demanding information to ensure every "t" was being crossed. In one press conference, Hipkins has already given a very different impression. He answers coherently, competently, and doesn't shy away from any questions. He is bringing a different set of standards. The fact he has immediately asked for change speaks volumes as to how hands-on he plans to be. Reminder, this is a Premium article and requires a subscription to read. The Labour party has released its Rainbow Manifesto.