A Wellington-based think tank focusing on potentially critical shortages of medical equipment has written an open letter to every district health board in the country.

The letter urges DHBs to release details of what stocks they have of equipment like goggles, gowns, gloves, disinfectant, masks, hand sanitiser, oxygen tanks and medical ventilators, so any gaps can be plugged as soon as possible.

In the letter, Wendy McGuinness, chief executive of the McGuinness Institute, says we have a window of opportunity to act to make sure that if, or when, things get serious with the pandemic, we don’t run out of key equipment.

McGuinness says this window will enable New Zealand to:

– know what medical items need to be rationed early and/or substituted;

– fill supply gaps (e.g. Hamilton-based brewery Good George is now producing hand sanitiser); and

– order medical items from other countries (eg Australia, China or Singapore).

“We are working with a number of people who would like to know this information, such as philanthropists, manufacturers, procurement officers, doctors and nurses. To this end we are asking all DHBs to share with us, and ideally place on their websites the locations (e.g. hospital name), quantities, brand names, number of uses (i.e. are they disposable or reusable?), purchase dates and expiry dates of the medical supplies they have.”

New Zealand does have a pandemic stockpile list, but a lot of the items relate to supplies that would be needed to counter a flu epidemic – not Covid-19.

There are details about mask numbers – the stockpile contains nine million of the high protection P2 masks and 4.5 million ordinary masks.

But there is virtually no information about other protective medical gear, held by DHBs, or essential supplies like disinfectant or hand sanitiser.

“The website only says, about supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE, that ‘volume and specific composition varies by DHB, based on individual DHB requirements’.”

Nor does the list mention oxygen tanks, CT scanners or medical ventilators.

McGuinness put her first Official Information Act request into the Ministry of Health about equipment on March 2, after she first got worried about whether we had enough protective gear and ventilators.

For three weeks she heard nothing, but became increasingly concerned.

She decided to go direct to the DHBs this week after the ministry said it didn’t have the information. 

“We are working hard to ensure the New Zealand public is fully informed about the work being done to respond to Covid-19,” a spokesperson told McGuinness in a letter.

“The Ministry is committed to transparency. .. You may be interested to know the information will be published as soon as possible on the Ministry’s ‘Information Releases’ page.” 

McGuinness says she understands how busy everyone is, but without information about what medical supplies there already are in New Zealand, it’s impossible for manufacturers, importers and others to make informed decisions. 

“This is an evolving situation and we are continuously learning about the types of medical items that a surge in Covid-19 cases might require.

“It is critical to have the key data about the quality and quantity of medical items that we have in stock. This is what supply chain analysis aims to illustrate – a road map to action.”

In his press conference today, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said masks were being released to DHBs from the pandemic stock later today. 

Find the full text of the open letter here.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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