In 2017, three years before Covid, the Ministry of Health refused to fund a research project looking at closing the country’s borders to control a pandemic.
The researchers were told border closure would never be part of the New Zealand response to a pandemic.
Dr Matt Boyd is a researcher specialising in health, technology and catastrophic risk.
He has his own research company, Adapt Research, but has worked at the University of Auckland and as a senior advisor to the National Health Committee.
He also works with Otago University epidemiologist, Nick Wilson and five years ago, the pair began to research what might happen to islands in a pandemic.
“We did some other research which looked back at 1918, the Spanish flu, and it was clear that there were there were several places that either escaped completely or had very few cases, and these tended to be isolated islands,” Boyd told POLITIK.
“And it was not just that they were isolated islands, but they were isolated islands that implemented a strict maritime quarantine policy.
“Islands that didn’t have strict quarantine ended up with loads of cases, and islands that did have a strict maritime quarantine policy had very few if any.”
But looking at the available literature on the subject, they found what might be a northern hemisphere bias against travel restrictions in epidemic situations.
“A lot of this advice was coming from the perspective of North American and European organisations that are used to large land borders, and so forth that would be difficult, you know, to close,” he said.
So with the international research of little use, the pair did their own study on what impact closing the New Zealand border would have during an epidemic.
“We did this in a series of modelling studies looking at the cost-effectiveness of closing New Zealand’s border and basically weighing up what would be the deaths and hospital costs and lost future productivity and so forth that we could avoid by closing the border if we could completely keep a pandemic out, weighed against the lost revenue from the tourism industry and doing this sort of trade-off,” he said.
“There’s obviously going to be a point somewhere at which the benefits outweigh the costs.
By 2017 they had found a point and concluded that if a pandemic were going to be as severe as 1918, then it would be rational from a cost-effectiveness point of view to close the border to try and keep it out.
“We went to the Ministry of Health with the first paper that we’d published and asked, are you interested in this sort of stuff and basically said is there any funding?
“Would you be interested in funding further research on this, modelling or economic analysis or thinking around the border situation because the New Zealand pandemic influenza plan didn’t didn’t actually rule out border closure as an option.
“It sort of mentioned vaguely things like border controls and the possibility of restricting arrivals from certain areas and that sort of thing.
“We had an informal meeting with the Ministry.
“Nick (Professor Nick Wilson), and I were there and half a dozen or so Ministry officials from the two groups, mainly, if I remember correctly, the Emergency Management Department and the public health unit.
“They were sort of vaguely interested in the thinking, but they were pretty clear that border closures were never going to be a policy option.
“And so they weren’t willing to contemplate receiving a more formally worked up proposal for further research.”
But by the time the first lockdown was implemented last year, the Ministry was calling for a complete closure of the border.
NZ First Leader Winston Peters revealed last April that the Ministry of Health recommended a total shutdown of New Zealand’s borders on March 25 – a day before the level 4 lockdown began.
But, Peters said, Cabinet rejected that advice because it was “inconceivable that we will ever turn our backs on our own”.
The end result appears to be that Cabinet stalled on closing the border.
Appearing before Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee on April 7 last year, 13 days after the lockdown began, Otago University epidemiologist, Sir David Skegg, complained for the second time in front of the committee about the lack of any plan to close the border.
“We can’t wait for the last week of the lockdown,” he said.
“It’s not going to be satisfactory to tighten up the border in the last few days of the lockdown—we’re almost halfway through it already.
“If you’re trying to empty a bath with a cup, you don’t leave the tap running at the other end, or even trickling.
“And I understand that in Australia, certainly as in China, people are quarantined in a hotel for two weeks when they arrive, and I’m not sure why we can’t do that.”
The only conclusion that can be made is that right up to the introduction of managed Isolation and Quarantine, two days after Skegg appeared before the committee, there was political debate within the Government about whether and how to implement it.
That might have been avoided if the Ministry of Health had not ruled it out as an option three years earlier.
After their rejection by the Ministry, Boyd and Wilson continued their research, partly funded by themselves and with some funding from the University of Otago.
Their work included trying to establish what sort of diseases might require a border closure.
“So we went through the lists of infectious diseases and lists of possible diseases that could be used as bioweapons and so forth, and basically went down a list and said yes or no, would closing the border ever be relevant for this for this sort of disease?
“And basically, there were only four.
“They were a fairly bad variant of non-seasonal influenza; smallpox, if it were to ever re-emerge from a laboratory somewhere; then there was an emerging zoonotic disease, pretty much exactly the sort of thing that Covid is where it crosses species and fourthly, a sort of an engineered bioweapon.”
So before it appeared, Boyd and Wilson had postulated that if a disease like Covid did appear on a pandemic basis, New Zealand would be best advised to close its border.
Had the Ministry of health listened to their research proposal, it would have been able to better plan and prepare for the day when Covid appeared.
But it didn’t.
Meanwhile, Boyd and Wilson went on in 2019 to research the role islands could play in a catastrophic pandemic.
They found that New Zealand, Australia and Iceland could act as island refuges to save humanity from extinction in the event of a catastrophic global pandemic.
The researchers ranked 20 island nations that could act as refuges from which large-scale technological societies could be rebuilt. From this process, New Zealand came out second best.
Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago, Wellington, said the risk of human extinction has probably never been higher, with the threat increasing as technology advances.
“Discoveries in biotechnology could see a genetically engineered pandemic threaten the survival of our species. Though carriers of disease can easily circumvent land borders, a closed, self-sufficient island could harbour an isolated, technologically-adept population that could repopulate the earth following a disaster.”
In order to identify the best islands to prepare as refuges, the researchers devised a scoring system taking into account the characteristics of each island nation’s population, location, resources and society.
The results showed Australia to be the most favourable refuge on paper because of its vast oversupply of energy and food. It was closely followed by New Zealand and then Iceland.
The researchers ranked island nations with populations of more than 250,000 as possible refuges, considering that the larger the population, the more likely it was that the refuge would ultimately be able to reboot global civilisation.
Professor Wilson says it is important to consider in advance how to mitigate low-probability but disastrous scenarios such as an extinction-level pandemic.
“It’s like an insurance policy. You hope that you never need to use it, but if disaster strikes, then the strategy needs to have been in place ahead of time.”