Sir Brian Roche

Once again, the Government has turned to its ubiquitous go-to man, Sir Brian Roche, to report, this time, on its Covid response.

And his appointment looks like a move by the Government to move beyond the Wellington bureaucracy for its advice on how to respond to Covid.

Roche is a consumate political insider who also chairs Waka Kotahi, Auckland’s Central Rail Loop and Antarctica New Zealand and is a member of the Government’s Infrastructure Reference Group.

He has already been a part of Heather Simpson’s Health Sector review and co-authored with her last year’s controversial report on Covid testing.

There was a consistent theme in those two reports of criticism of the Ministry of Health.

Now Roche will be joined by another leading public figure who has already been involved in the Covid response, the former Air New Zealand CEO, Rob Fyfe.

Fyfe has been a strong advocate for getting the private sector involved in the effort and was heavily involved in sourcing Personal Protection Equipment from overseas for the health sector in March or April last year.

Roche and Fyfe will be joined for this review by three doctors with backgrounds in Pasifika, Maori and international medicine.

But the establishment of the group, whether it coincidental or not, does look like a response to last week’s letter from five leading business people asking the Government to involve the private sector more in its Covid response.

Roche certainly sees more scope for private sector involvement.

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“I would have thought so,” he told POLITIK.

“That’s one of the things the group should be focused on, and that is where do you get the best perspective to improve the probability of success?

“We have been successful to date, and so this year, we start from a position of strength.

“But this is becoming a repeatable process.

“Repeatable processes tend to, by their nature, always seek to improve.

‘So it’s a genuine attempt perhaps not to get perfection because that’s often a bridge too far.

“But actually, how do you get continuous improvement?”

Roche has been given a wide brief.

The group’s terms of reference ask them to consider the current Covid response efforts across the Government’s system-wide response, “encompassing border, managed isolation and quarantine, and public health response.”

“It is expected that the Group will advise the Minister for Covid Response on the extent to which the Government response is performing efficiently and effectively and is based on best practice and technical advice,” the terms say.

“The Group will provide advice to the Minister for Covid  Response on priority areas for improvement and learning.

“The Group will also provide advice on forward scenario planning, readiness and preparedness of the system.”

The minister’s actually quite keen that we take a whole systems view now,” said Roche.

“We’re not going to start with structure because that can be a massive distraction to many.

“But I think improving the systems and the responses and all of those things will form part of what we’re going to focus on.

“And there’s been quite a bit of commentary already about where there can be improvements.”

The Opposition has been persistently critical of the slow takeup by the Government of the recommendations from Roche’s previous report with Heather Simpson on Covid testing. They have been particularly critical of the apparent reluctance of the Ministry of Health to fully approve saliva testing, which is being promoted by private sector companies even though the Simpson-Roche report said this should be introduced.

I think there’d be frustrations around from people within the system as well as those outside, and I look at that, and in the human sense, I think some of that is from fatigue and pressure, and I’m hugely respectful of that as are other members of the group,” said Roche.

“So we’re not trying to come in and be clever and have heaps of hindsight.

“We are where we are.

“The issue is how could we improve our processes so that we improve the confidence and trust that people must have in us and people as politicians, general stakeholders and participants in the sector.”

The appointment of Roche’s group is another step by the Government towards the “living with Covid” environment that mass vaccination will allow.

Central to that will be contact tracing if community outbreaks occur.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday told Parliament he was not satisfied with the failure during the recent Papatoetoe outbreak of the Auckland Public Health Unit to meet the contact tracing targets proposed by Ayesha Verrall last year before she became an MP and Cabinet Minister.

Hipkins said this was an issue Roche’s group would look at.

“We are—with the review panel that I have announced today—going to be having another look at what the most appropriate metrics are, and I’ve had conversations with Dr Verrall already because those metrics were very much designed for a system where there was transmission within the community,” Hipkins told Parliament.

“It was designed in a different context to the one that we’re dealing with now.

“Now we’re dealing primarily with cases that come through the border, and so we’ve got to have another look at whether those metrics are the most appropriate.”

So what is next in the fight against Covid?

“The future does have to be seen in the context of vaccines as well,” said Roche.

“Going back 12 months, and it’s worthwhile remembering we didn’t have the sort of systems that we are now looking to improve.

“The fact that we have them is a credit to those who have actually got us to this point.”

Roche said he hoped it would be possible for movement across the border to be taking place within the next 12 months.

But he is cautious.

In earlier reports, we’ve made clear that this virus could be with us for the best part of the next two to three years,” he said.

“And that should be the approach that we adopt.

“If we if we get to a point where there is freedom before that, then we’ll have done really well.

“But whatever freedom we have has to be seen in the context of risk management as well.

“You can’t have one without the other.

“And I think that is the call many people are saying is, do we have the ability to move more freely in the future?

“And one would hope that we can.

“Otherwise, the new norm will be quite different.”

But Covid moves fast; exactly a year ago, the principal concerns in the Beehive were what economic impact the worldwide slowdown plus the closure of our borders might have.

Those early fears have not been met.

And now, as we enter the vaccination era, it will be Roche’s task to draw up a blueprint that sees the health risk-managed and life begin to get back to normal.