Unlike with the original lockdowns in late March, the Government moved too softly and slowly on CovidCard. It may have cost the economy $2b, writes Bernard Hickey

So it turned out ‘going hard and early’ was the exception to this Government’s rule of going softly and slowly. That’s a pity because this ‘tricky’ virus doesn’t play by politicians’ and bureaucrats’ usual rules. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her ‘Zoomed-in’ Cabinet were rightly lauded in those frantic weeks of late March for ‘going hard and early’ in dealing with the threat of Covid-19.

It broke its business-as-usual rules around formulating policy, consulting ‘stakeholders’ and weighing up the political and economic risks carefully. It ‘moved fast and broke things’ by adopting the most stringent social isolation rules in the world. But the withdrawal of Sam Morgan’s team from the development of a bluetooth CovidCard has exposed that the rule-breaking was itself the exception to the rules for this current Government.

Just like KiwiBuild, Auckland Light Rail, the Capital Gains Tax and effective climate change policies, this Government got bogged down in a welter of working groups, coalition disputes, bureaucratic infighting and stonewalling, and an inability at the top level of Cabinet to direct the organs of Government to carry out its will. Weak and overwhelmed ministers accepted ‘Yes Minister’ for an answer and were not able to stop the initial energy and direction from dribbling away into the sands of endless consultation, trials and ways for officials to avoid taking risks or challenging the status quo.

Just like many New Zealanders, the Government was complacent in those 102 days between cases of community transmission through May, June, July and early August. Now that is coming home to roost. We saw it when it emerged the Ministry of Health did not follow through on Cabinet’s order in June to test everyone working at the border and in Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities. Now we’ve seen it again with the stalling of CovidCard.

It’s rare to see anyone inside the machinery of Government call out hand waving and dissembling by those within ministries and by ministers. The number one rule in Government is to preserve the political optics of ‘something is being done’ and to ensure there are no surprises or embarrassments for ministers. This has created a risk-averse culture of arse-covering and plausible deniability whenever accountability is demanded. 

Sam Morgan and the supporters of CovidCard in the private sector play by different rules and were not prepared to simply accept the status quo. We saw that on Tuesday when he and fellow tech entrepreneur Ian Taylor called out the Ministry of Health’s lack of commitment or ability to deliver CovidCard.

“We’ve effectively all stood down over the last couple of weeks. It became clear to us that it was going to fail and it wasn’t going anywhere,” Morgan said.

“It just became buried in the dysfunction of hopeless project managers,” he said.

“There’s just no execution capability in the ministry to do this.”

Ministers did not have the technical background to recognise this or rectify it, Morgan said. The Ministry was not committed to delivering the bluetooth card, and was instead pursuing the Google/Apple model for using bluetooth on smart phones as the way to track and trace contacts of people infected with Covid-19, he said. 

Taylor was less diplomatic about Communications Minister Kris Faafoi, who is leading the project.

“I understand Sam’s frustration. I’ve been a witness on the edge of it, just the way the thing has gone around in circles. This was a decision that needed to be made really early,” he told RNZ’s Checkpoint on Tuesday.

CovidCard was first proposed in April, but only one trial has been done in Rotorua, and now another trial is being planned for an isolation facility. Taylor said not enough had been done fast enough since April.

‘Fiddling while Rome burned’

“Minister Faafoi said the other day: ‘it’s a number of things we’re looking at. I don’t imagine I’ll put anything in front of Cabinet before the end of the year’,” Taylor said.

“Well, you know my image immediately was Nero fiddling while Rome burned, and my message to Faafoi is we are on fire. And we need to stop fiddling.”

Faafoi told reporters in Parliament he understood Morgan’s frustrations, but the Government would not go ahead until it was sure.

“We’re not going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on something that isn’t tested and we don’t know how the community will respond to it,” he said.

“I can’t control Sam’s feelings on a day-to-day basis. But we’re committed to making sure that we have a trial in Rotorua and that’s what we’ll be doing. He’s very passionate about what he thinks needs to happen. But we’re not going to do that, without putting the card through a trial.”

“He got frustrated because we haven’t made a decision to commit to it yet, but it’s a hundreds of millions of dollars decision and taxpayers probably deserve to know that if we’re going to roll it out, it’s going to work.”

The costs of inaction

Taylor rejected Faafoi’s conservatism on CovidCard and said an earlier rollout of the bluetooth cards nationally for a cost of $100 million may have prevented the level three lockdown in Auckland and level 2 elsewhere, which was costing around $500m a week and potentially $2b for the length of the lockdowns.

“If everyone had been using the CovidCard, they may well have even tracked the source of it. They certainly would have tracked all three weeks of everybody who had the CovidCard,” he said.

“If Minister Faafoi thinks paying one hundred million dollars to keep Auckland out of level four for the past three weeks is a risk, then the other risk he’s just taken has just cost us way more.

“I have no idea why people are treating Sam the way they did and why Minister Faafoi seemed to dismiss Sam today as being sort of petulant. Minister Faafoi and those ministers, if they can’t respond fast and quickly enough they need to step aside.”

‘We’re doing things’

Ministry of Health deputy director Shayne Hunter the Ministry was interested in the trial in Rotorua would go ahead later this month.

“The country is dealing with a difficult virus and we need a number of effective tools to fight Covid-19,” he said.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement the trial would be completed around the end of September, with a report to Cabinet by the end of October.

“Work to date has included engaging with community leaders, iwi, public health units, the Department of Internal Affairs, MBIE, NZ Contact Tracing, as well as a wider team of people covering technology, policy, legal, data, market research and other key elements of the work,” the spokesperson said.

“The ministry will be working with community leaders and iwi over coming days to discuss the design of the trial and options for selecting participants.”The Rotorua trial will help us determine whether the CovidCard works in a real-world scenario and will also allow us to test public sentiment.

“We expect a decision on whether to deploy the CovidCard more widely will be made before the end of the year.”

‘It’s going nowhere’

Morgan was unconvinced of the Ministry’s commitment. 

“While directives can be given from above by ministers, you need capable and committed people in the layers below who believe it can be done,” Morgan told The NZ Herald.

“Unless they stand up a dedicated and well-led technology group with a mandate to do this, it will never go anywhere. You can’t just put a dozen mid-level Government project managers and comms people on this and have it happen. You need actual technology people, well-led, with a mandate. Senior people need to engage,” he said.

“This is just another thing ministers say is happening but it is not.”

‘It’s all a smokescreen’

The Ministry had instead committed to the Apple/Google initiative to use bluetooth in phone apps, but it had massive false positive and false negative rates, and was also not available to the 10 percent of the population who don’t have smart phones, let alone the large percentage unable to download or use apps.

“The Ministry will, true to form, not conduct field trials to determine efficacy or do the modelling work to show how it can impact on the virus – it is all a smokescreen and not being conducted with any rigour. New Zealanders might start getting Google notifications out of the blue telling them to self-isolate without good reason.”

Morgan expected the Government would rediscover it’s ability to move faster after a second or third lockdown.

“We’ve always thought it will take three or four lockdowns before it sinks in that our current approach is economically, politically and socially unsustainable,” he says.

“Two more to go.”

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