Experts urged Govt to be ‘explicit’ in goal to ‘save Māori lives’ in new Covid framework

Source: 1News

Nearly all of a group of the country’s leading public health experts were sceptical of an earlier version of the Government’s traffic light Covid framework, according to a recently-released report to the Prime Minister.

Covid trafic light system.

Those experts also wanted the Government to base its new Covid-19 framework in Te Tiriti, have visible Māori and Pacific leadership, and have an “explicit goal to save Māori lives” and other vulnerable groups.

The five-page report, released publicly by the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor Dame Juliet Gerrard on Saturday, was produced from a workshop of 29 people on October 15 convened under urgency after a request from Jacinda Ardern.

Attendees included director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay, epidemiologists Sir David Skegg, Michael Baker and Rod Jackson; modeller Shaun Hendy; microbiologist Dr Siousxie Wiles; prominent Māori GP Dr Rawiri Jansen; and Pacific public health academic Collin Tukuitonga.

They were tasked with providing input on an October 13 version of the traffic light system and advising the Government on how it would communicate its evolving strategy.

"The wider group, and Māori colleagues in particular, are disappointed and frustrated at the lack of codesign of the [traffic light system]," the report noted.

Among the recommendations from the report were that the Government shouldn’t shift to the traffic light system until a 90 per cent rate of vaccination was reached, “including for Māori and other vulnerable groups”.

“There was agreement that a target that considers only the overall population’s coverage was not appropriate,” the report reads.

A “circuit-breaker” lockdown for Auckland was also discussed because of rapidly-increasing case numbers. However, experts acknowledged this may not result in zero cases in the community.

“There was wide agreement that our adjusted real-world strategy at this moment in time is well described as ‘continued elimination outside Auckland and active suppression in Auckland’,” the report said.

“There was [an] acknowledgement that any circuit breaker lockdowns in future would need to have clearly defined objectives (e.g. to lower the case load, not to eliminate) and clear exit criteria (e.g to be of fixed duration).”

However, the report noted that “there was a view from those dealing with the outbreak day-to-day that lockdowns did not work for the central cohort in the current Auckland outbreak, but that they could provide a means to prevent cases ballooning in the wider population”.

The group also believed that it wouldn’t be possible for places with active cases, like Auckland, to move to the framework’s least restrictive green setting “in the foreseeable future”. They also thought the restrictions at any of the three traffic light settings weren’t strict enough.

“The triggers for moving up and down [the traffic light system] need to be well defined and focus on predicting future surges, so as not to overwhelm the health system.”

On contact tracing, the group said there were issues with a lack of staff and capacity to manage the current Delta outbreak, and that lessons needed to be learnt after staff losses at the Auckland Regional Public Health Service.

“This will inevitably affect the effectiveness of testing, contact tracing, case management and healthcare as the numbers of cases increase,” they said.

The report echoes what attendees told 1News on Monday: That there was “near-unanimous” opposition to the traffic light system which has been described as “unworkable”, “not fit for purpose”, and “too simplistic”.

Similar criticisms were made by independent health experts and Māori leaders who met with the Government’s Māori caucus before details of the traffic light system were publicly released.

The final framework, which was announced a week after the workshop, was “significantly strengthened” from the draft version after the group’s advice, according to the chief science advisor’s office.

The Government’s final traffic light system didn’t include explicit vaccination targets for Māori, with Ardern saying it would be captured in its target of getting every DHB to a 90 per cent double vaccination rate in its eligible population.

The Government also announced a new $120 million fund to accelerate Māori vaccination rates on Friday.

Te Pāti Māori called the traffic light system a “real-life squid game” for Māori that would result in Māori deaths.

“On every single Covid indicator, Māori are significantly behind every other ethnicity,” co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said.

“On every single indicator, Māori are likely to take the biggest hits from a Delta outbreak; vaccinated or not.

“The fact that the Government has been absolutely resistant to setting Māori targets right from the outset is a problem. The fact they have ignored all Māori health expert advice right from the outset is a problem.”

Meanwhile, the Green Party called the plan "rushed and risky".

“The proposed vaccination targets are insufficient to protect the most vulnerable, and risk opening up before everyone is safe on an equal basis,” Greens MP Julie Anne Genter said.