Business leader Rob Campbell with Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy at his investiture last year as an Officer of the order of New Zealand

A group of the country’s most respected business leaders are now looking through the current Auckland lockdown and asking what comes next.

They want the Government — and they mean the Ministry of Health particularly — to open up and divulge what the  Covid strategy from here on is.

The group includes Patrick Strange (Chair of Chorus NZ and Auckland Airport), Prue Flacks (Chair of Mercury Energy), Joan Withers (Chair of The Warehouse Group), Rob Campbell (Chair of SkyCity, Tourism Holdings, Summerset and Chancellor of Auckland University of Technology) and Scott St John (Chancellor of the University of Auckland and Chair of Fisher & Paykel Healthcare).

Rob Campbell told POLITIK last night that there had  been a lot of discussion among boards and senior managers of major companies about how we’re handling the Covid issues now;  how we deal with border issues; how we deal with vaccinations, “how we deal with the world where Covid still exists going forward.”

“We’re all concerned that when we look forward, it’s really difficult to plan because we’re not really sure what the structure of government thinking is about what the economy and society and the rules will be like,” he said.

“And we think that we could make a much bigger contribution if there was a much more open relationship between the government agencies and business.”

Specifically, the group are asking for:

  • The status of New Zealand’s near to long-term COVID-19 strategy to be made available beyond government circles.
  • The detail of New Zealand’s contracted access to vaccines, including the timing and size of each tranche of vaccines through to the ongoing vaccine purchase programme and the principles which will drive the rollout.
  • The publication of New Zealand’s testing capacity and strategy.
  • An understanding of any future plans for a more automated approach to tracking and tracing, health passports and other technology to manage future community outbreaks and manage the vaccine rollout.
  • The status of the Government’s plan to develop the ‘world’s smartest border’ to enable New Zealand business to reconnect with critical overseas customers, international students to return and to allow friends and family to reconnect in Australia and the Pacific Islands through safe travel zones.

The first point raised by the group — calling for the Government’s near to long term Covid strategy to be made available “beyond Government circles” — is a reminder that this is something both the Prime Minister and her deputy, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, have said very little about.

The Director General of health, Ashley Bloomfield, yesterday seemed to suggest nothing had changed over the past year. The strategy wa till the same as it was in March, 2020.

The important thing is to remember this year, New Zealand is still in an elimination strategy, and that is that we will not tolerate community transmission of the virus,” he said.

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“Therefore, the important thing is not when people get vaccinated; it’s the fact that they get vaccinated.

“And the more people that get vaccinated, the better.

“And so that’s the aim of this year.

“In the meantime, we’re in an elimination strategy, and the most important thing is that we vaccinate as many people as possible.”

The Prime Minister, however, seemed to have a subtly different strategy in mind.

Early evidence looks very promising in terms of the Pfizer vaccine’s ability not only to protect individuals from the disease but also to reduce its transmission,” she told her post-Cabinet press conference.

“So with vaccination of border staff underway, we are in a stronger position.

“With that first group better protected, we are all better off.”

But on December 7 last year, she was asked whether the borders would not open until we had herd immunity (expected when 70 per cent of the population have been vaccinated); she said: “No—not necessarily. Of course, what will be material is what the evidence in clinical trials will demonstrate around the level of transmission that you may or may not have amongst those who are vaccinated.”

But that is as far as the Government has gone. The big question remains unanswered; are there policies in place which might allow the border to open — as QANTAS CEO Alan Joyce has suggested — in July this year.

Add to that the widespread frustration in the private sector about the failure to get saliva testing in place and to use some of the private sector technological solutions proposed for contact tracing.

“There seems to be a reluctance on the part of primarily the ministries involved to really have an open exchange of information and exchange of thinking and exchange of processes,” Campbell said.

“There’s a danger that we slip behind on this just at the time that we’ve done so well, and we want to avoid that.

“None of this should be seen as critical of what has happened.

“But, you know, our job is to look at it, and we think we could do a whole lot better than we’re doing at the moment.”

It’s clear that Campbell’s target is the bureaucracy rather than the politicians themselves.

“We don’t need to necessarily be talking to ministers all the time about it,” he said.

“The exchanges that are really important in many ways are between the ministries involved and businesses.”

Another member of the group, Prue Flacks, also fingered the Ministry of Health and said that “major New Zealand businesses would welcome the opportunity to assist the Government in its longer-term planning by providing input and expertise into its strategy for virus management.

“We’ve seen the open and transparent approach taken by Australia on its vaccine rollout plan, the launch last week by the United Kingdom government of a clear plan to manage a path out of its current lockdown[1] and the ongoing success in Taiwan of avoiding lockdowns through using technology to manage home isolation. 

“It will be beneficial for all New Zealand if the Ministry of Health and other agencies take an open and transparent approach to the development of a path towards sustainable virus management.”

The frustration with the Ministry, particularly its unwillingness to listen to outside voices,  has been around since the first Covid case a year ago.

Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche, in their report last September the country’s surveillance plan and testing strategy, said: “Without exception government agencies we spoke to expressed concern at their inability to be “heard’ by the Ministry of Health.

“There was a feeling that a lack of preparedness to understand the implications of some of the advice being offered put the government and key affected parties in a difficult position.”

“Across the business and community sector, we have seen first-hand the financial impact of this virus on people’s lives,” SAID Campbell.

“While as a country, we have avoided the devastating health consequences seen overseas, we do need to equip ourselves for a future in which we are continuing to manage Covid long-term.

 “We are positive about what has been achieved to date.

“We are all keen and committed to bringing our collective expertise to assist the Government in working for the longer-term benefit of all New Zealanders and look forward to the government’s response.”