The military are effectively taking over the management of the Covid-19 border isolation and quarantine facilities and processes.
In effect, they will now be coming over the top of the Police, Aviation Security and the Ministry of Health.
They will not be working as armed guards at facilities; the Police and Aviation Security will still do hard enforcement.
Their main role will be a management and logistics one which up till now has largely been the responsibility of the Police and the Ministry of Health.
Their introduction into the heart of the planning and management process, the Operations Control Centre, in Wellington’s Midland Tower high rise suggests that those areas were under-resourced and under-performed right through the lockdown period.
But now that New Zealanders are starting to return home, the pressure on the border is much greater and as recent events have shown, what worked during the lockdown when there was low traffic will not work now the traffic has increased.
Defence Minister Ron Mark told POLITIK last night that there were currently 718 Defence personnel embedded right across Government working on the Covid-19 response on everything from the isolation and quarantine facilities to organising repatriation flights such as those announced yesterday to take Ni Vanuatu Recognised Seasonal Employee (RSE) workers home.
The Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, said that ever since the quarantine and isolation facilities had been set up, the oversight and the management of the facilities had been an all of government responsibility.
“I just need to reiterate that actually the overall management of the facilities has from the start been an all of government responsibility,” he said.
“So there’s an all of government team, and they’ve been responsible.
“Our responsibility was to provide the public health advice and the protocols, protocols about how the facility should be managed and that we are responsible for ensuring that the health aspects of what happens in those facilities is done appropriately.”
The “all of government team” t was a reference to the All of Government Committee, headed by John Ombler, which was originally in the forefront of the Beehive media conferences but which by early April had been replaced in public by the Prime Minister and Dr Bloomfield.
That decision may have reflected some tensions behind the scenes which seem to have intensified when the former Commissioner of Police, Mike Bush, arrived to become Operations Controller reporting to Ombler.
Bloomfield reported directly to Bush but now, Air Commodore Darryn “Digby” Webb, will step in between Bush and Bloomfield and the Director-General will report to him.
Webb was seconded to the All of Government team on May 31 and appointed to his new role by the Prime Minister on Tuesday.
Mark suggested in Parliament yesterday that Webb was replacing Health officials in his new role.
“An officer who was assisting with a particular role has simply been—for want of a better term—promoted in the field because he’s done an outstanding job,” he said.
“Now, the situation is, instead of him assisting health officials, he is now leading in that particular role.”
Mark said that Webb would, in turn, have Defence personnel appointed who will report to him.
In essence, the military has taken over the management and running of the isolation and quarantine facilities at the expense of the Ministry of Health who have now been confined to an advisory role.
“The strength of Defence that the Prime Minister has identified is the ability to think clearly to understand systems, processes, procedures to scenario plan exercise those scenarios, identify the structures and the procedures and the plan that’s necessary and then damn well implement it with rigour, monitor it, enforce it, and make sure that there is uniform, consistent compliance right across the entire area,” said Mark.
“Digby is going to have do that right across the whole of the country.
“He’s going to have a number of senior officers supporting him; a major down south; a lieutenant colonel operating up north.”
Mark said there would be a “wiring diagram” of officers involved in the process.
Bloomfield said that over and above the officers essentially now running the isolation and quarantine operations, additional Defense resources were required to ensure that those facilities had the staff they needed and were able to be run in accordance with the “very strict protocols that we, from a public health perspective, require them to be run.”
Mark stressed that the military personnel at the facilities would not be armed.
“The Defence Force source can not itself turn up on the streets with weapons or turn up in any locality and decide for itself to deploy lethal force,” he said.
“You can only do that if the Prime Minister has declared martial law and that has not and is certainly not going to happen.”
What appears to have happened is that as arrivals in the country dramatically increased once, we went into Level One, the system could not cope.
In the first 17 days of May, there were 2753 arrivals; the first 17 days of June saw 4284 arrivals.
Beehive sources say most are returning New Zealanders.
The Ministry of Health yesterday released a list of 18 hotels in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch which are being used for isolation and quarantine.
There is a recognition now among officials that the borders may remain their present semi-closed state till at least the end of the year.
The developments this week are part of an effort to acknowledge that and to professionalise the structure.
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