Members of the Government's Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group say they're shocked they weren't consulted on the introduction of "stages" of Level 3 in Auckland and the move away from elimination.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signalled last Monday the Government is moving away from total elimination of Covid-19.
“Elimination was important because we didn't have vaccines; now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things,” she said.
Those changes included relaxing restrictions under Level 3 by going through three stages, the first of which allows groups of up to 10 to meet outdoors.
“Children can have a play date in a park, friends can meet outside for a walk, a picnic or a beer,” Ardern said.
But that announcement wasn’t based on advice from the advisory group, members say. Some say they were blindsided by last week’s announcement.
“I was really surprised to not be involved,” Auckland GP Dr Matire Harwood said.
“I think myself and Dr Colin Tukuitonga - who have been both working and advocating for Māori and Pacific people in South Auckland, particularly - would have been involved in this process given it's probably going to be our community that's going to have the biggest impact.”
She says the group has been consulted with less and less since it was formed early last year.
“We were meeting weekly right at the very beginning, actually twice weekly to start with because we knew this was really important. It was critical to hear the multitude of voices around the Zoom table as to what needed to happen, to take a collective approach to this.
“I would have thought we would pick up again as we got into Delta, but that didn't happen and so we've really moved from those twice weekly to monthly meetings now. I'm not sure that's enough.”
The group consists of 12 experts on virology, pathology, epidemiology and Māori and Pacific health.
Tukuitonga says he believes the move away from elimination is “potentially quite damaging” and the introduction of stages in Auckland’s Level 3 wasn’t based on evidence.
“I did feel perhaps Cabinet was pressured by tired Aucklanders and the business community to move in this direction even though those of us with a public health focus thought it was premature and risky,” he said.
“When we went to Level 3 with the picnic arrangement I felt that wasn't a public health, science-based decision - it was a political, pragmatic response. I did not think it was based on evidence.”
Fellow group member, professor Michael Baker, says the group has advised on “virtually every aspect” of our Covid-19 response so far, and he’s concerned the same didn’t happen this time.
“There was very limited consultation with Government science advisors that I’m aware of. There are other groups that might have a role in this kind of decision-making, but these were two of the biggest decisions that have been made by Government in the last 18 months.
“That is such a large decision, you’d expect a large amount of consultation before it was announced.”
Other members who spoke to 1News said they believed elimination of Covid-19 in New Zealand was still possible and the strategy’s been abandoned too soon. They also want to know which group of independent experts was consulted, though no specifics were given during Wednesday's media conference.
“These have been ongoing conversations that have been going on for quite a period of time,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says our pandemic response is “very much” led by science.
“The decisions are being based on public health risk assessments that we provide through, not just my personal advice. We canvas the views of a range of people, including colleagues in Auckland who are dealing with this outbreak every day,” he said.
Baker says he’s written to Government leaders urging them to scrap the stages in Auckland’s Level 3 in favour of a more nuanced alert level system. His Otago University colleagues Dr Amanda Kvalsvig and Professor Nick Wilson agree the system needs to go.
“The stages just look completely out of step with the systems we've been using,” Baker said.
“We're all so used to working down the alert levels as you take pressure off the virus… and here suddenly there’s these steps, you’re going to go up these steps, which is going the other direction. Immediately there’s the potential for confusion particularly as the rest of the country is still using the alert level system.
“I think it confused the public unnecessarily, it surprised everyone. It hadn’t been peer-reviewed very much as far as I know, and when you look at the detail it really didn’t make that much sense.”
The Ministry of Health told 1News a meeting with expert consultants, planned for later in the month, has been brought forward to Thursday.
“Tomorrow TAG members, and other public health and academic specialists, will meet to consider issues such as alert levels and any further changes to the system,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The October meeting was brought forward in order to more promptly provide advice on a range of issues.”