We could be forgiven if we believed that the government’s approach to the pandemic was fixated on the health issues to the exclusion of almost everything else.
We see daily briefings by the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, sometimes supported by his his political boss, the Prime Minister, or his official boss the Controller, John Ombler. The message has been a mixture of the positive: ‘cases are coming down’; and the precautionary: ‘keep to the rules’.
Other officials make cameo appearances, either at the daily briefings or at the three-times a week meetings of the parliamentary Covid-19 response committee.
There is more to it, though, than health. But health is clearly the government’s main focus. Without national health, the argument goes, we will have nothing.
But there is a lot more happening, with most government departments involving tens if not hundreds of their staff in all-of-government planning and response. And that says nothing about the specific to agency work that still needs to be carried out and the work of regional and territorial authorities through their emergency management plans.
The basis of the government’s response revolves around a leadership group of five senior officials (the ‘Quint’), under John Ombler as national controller, appointed under the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002. He is supported by Ashley Bloomfield, Director-General of Health, Sarah Stuart-Black, the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management, recently retired Police Commissioner Mike Black as overall operations commander and Dr Peter Crabtree giving oversight to the all-of-government national strategy and policy.
They and their supporting staff work from a ‘National Crisis Management Centre’ which is responsible for matters such as strategy and planning, public information, logistics and recovery. Day to day operations are managed from an ‘Operational Command Centre’, which includes a joint intelligence group and from which Mike Bush operates .
These centres are staffed from across the government. For example, the New Zealand Defence Force and Ministry of Defence together have seconded around 60 staff members as ‘planners, liaison officers and other specialist staff’’. Other specialist staff will refer no doubt to intelligence analysts, supply chain specialists and movement experts. Liaison officers will be in, for example, the Operational Command Centre, the National Emergency Management Agency, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, NZ Police, and the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. As well, liaison officers are in Emergency Coordination Centres in regions around the country.
Every government agency will give a similar level of support, depending on the focus of its activities and its own capacity.
The planning is focused on a mixture of ‘pillars’ of activity, workstreams coordinated within the OCC across the pillars, and ‘designated objectives’ within management functions.
The pillars of activity, defined in the pandemic National Action Plan, and their lead agencies range across the obvious functions of government: health; law and order; education; the economy; international issues and the like, each with an appropriate agency to lead activity in the area.
Other government agencies are required to provide sufficient staff to ensure these pillars can work effectively.
But the pillars are not where the detailed work occurs. That is the domain of the workstreams.
The workstreams are more opaque, both in their composition and their processes. It may be sensible that they are more hidden. They can be started when needed and wound up when their business is complete, without attention being drawn to them because of their prominence in a planning document. We know there are currently more than 20 workstreams, but little else, although some snapshots are available and inferences can be drawn.
We know for example that there is a Critical Workforce workstream. That workstream has ‘sourced people to respond to increased call centre demands, established a virtual contact centre to support the main COVID-19 response lines, and located more than 200 people to boost the Ministry of Health’s ability to scale up contact tracing. They’ve even supported airport personnel with additional security needs’, according to a note from State Services’ Commissioner Peter Hughes.
Another workstream involves Crown Research Institute ESR, which has responsibilities for health intelligence and which will be working with the Ministry of Health and with intelligence analysts from the External Assessments Bureau and other agencies with similar capabilities on tracking and understanding the virus. ESR developed the dashboard that breaks down the incidence of COVID-19 in New Zealand. ESR is also supporting international efforts to combat the virus through the development of genome sequencing and by working on a testing method for COVID-19 using wastewater samples.
There will be workstreams around international supply chain management. The lead for these activities, through MBIE, will be New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, which has also been working with the Ministry of Transport to develop Air New Zealand’s capacity to respond to exporters’ needs without normal market signals.
Supply chain management is a detailed component of international trade policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade leads a workstream ensuring that trade flows continue. The recent announcement that Canada, Australia, Chile, Brunei and Myanmar have joined Singapore and New Zealand in committing to maintain open and connected supply chains is one of the fruits of that piece of activity.
There is a workstream around home schooling, led by the Ministry of Education. This workstream will be identifying students who need additional resources, devices, internet connectivity or hard copy learning materials. The government’s recent announcement that children without computers available at home will receive them is likely to be the result of this work, as is the announcement that educational TV channels are to be started.
As well as the range of workstreams, focused on specific areas, there are designated all-of-government objectives covering routine management functions that apply to any situation, but receive special emphasis in this pandemic.
Of these objectives, ‘recovery’ is probably of most interest. A ‘Recovery Manager is an integral part of civil defence emergency management. The recovery manager is tasked with developing an understanding of recovery needs, developing a long-term recovery strategy for the country and to begin initial recovery planning.
This is an issue of utmost interest to all New Zealand. The recovery manager has to work in an environment of limited information and heroic assumptions to develop a plan that satisfies the demands of a range of interests, not all of them in agreement with each other. The trade-off between developing a solution quickly and developing an effective solution is important here.
There are likely to be many workstreams related to recovery. Many of them will be around the economy: how to ensure the economy keeps working after the lockdown; how to re-develop the tourism industry; the hospitality industry; the forestry industry; the list can go forever as every sector will have different needs.
Every facet of society is likely to have a similar listing and to have groups trying to determine future needs and the roles of the government in filling those needs.
Decisions and advice on current and future needs are being made hour by hour, sometimes by experts (as with best practice for managing the lockdown), at other times by civil servants trying to follow policy development processes in a very uncertain environment.
Not all decisions will be welcomed. But decisions are not made arbitrarily. Rather, they are the result of discussions and analysis of the relevant importance of different issues (of personal health versus the health of the economy for example) and trade-offs as resources have to be directed to different areas, sometimes at the expense of others. The surprise sometimes is really that it comes together effectively at all.
The analogy of a swan sailing serenely on the surface of the water while beneath the surface its feet are paddling furiously is an apt one for our understanding of the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.