Analysis: Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins sat down with Newsroom senior political reporter Marc Daalder to discuss his priorities for the term ahead, how to reopen the borders and the possibility of a double pandemic

If Chris Hipkins does his job well, he won’t have it in a few years’ time.

Of course, it isn’t entirely under his control, but the new Covid-19 Response Minister freely admits he’s hoping the portfolio won’t exist for too long.

“It is, I hope, only a temporary job,” he tells Newsroom during an interview about his priorities for the term ahead.

“We’ve got a big amount of work to do in the next 12 to 18 months to keep Covid-19 out of New Zealand, but ultimately the sooner the job disappears, the better.”

Making up the playbook

The Covid-19 Response portfolio is unlike just about anything else in Government. There is no set of policies to implement and very little politicking to do. Instead, the job involves a lot of fine-tuning existing plans and waiting – either for a Covid-19 resurgence or the arrival of a vaccine.

“There’s, loosely, two major priorities in the Covid-19 space,” Hipkins says.

“One is making sure we keep the virus out. The other is preparing for the things we will need to do to return to life a bit more normal when the opportunity arises to do that. That is vaccination, safe travel zones, it’s all of those things. But the first priority, number one priority at this point in where we’re at with our Covid response is doing everything we can to keep the virus out.”

A lot of that, over the course of the pandemic, has been about making it up on the fly. Sure, the decisions are rooted in scientific advice, but there are very few countries overseas whose response we’d want to copy.

“I think the key thing for me is that there isn’t really a playbook here. There’s no instruction manual. A lot of the stuff that we’re doing, we’ve never had to do it before,” he says.

“We need to have a system that learns, that’s constantly learning and constantly improving and involving. And we have to be open and honest about that. So we have to be open and say there will be areas where we identify improvements that need to be made and we want to get on to do those as quickly as we can, but it’s not going to be 100 percent right the first time because nothing ever is.”

New Zealand’s approach is unique

Hipkins says calls by public health experts like Michael Baker for a whole-of-system review of the Covid-19 response risk draining resources from the response itself.

“My concern with something as big as an inquiry or a Royal Commission is that they suck up a huge amount of time and energy, and they distract people from the job that we need to be doing at the moment, which is dealing with the response.”

He also rankles at comparisons to Taiwan. Last week, he put his foot in his mouth when he compared the country to “authoritarian regimes” and called its Covid-19 strategy an “authoritarian approach”.

A spokesperson later clarified that “Taiwan itself is not authoritarian, but some of its Covid response measures – such as sharing information on people’s health, travel and personal details between agencies – would likely not be possible under our privacy legislation”.

Speaking to Newsroom, Hipkins adds that the challenges and advantages that each country is facing are different. Taiwan, for example, is dealing with 80 percent fewer incoming travellers per capita than New Zealand. That makes it much easier to prevent spread of the virus from their monitored isolation scheme, in which returnees self-isolate at their own homes and are electronically monitored.

“Of course we look at what they’re doing, but it’s not a like for like comparison,” he says.

That’s a theme that Hipkins returns to repeatedly – every country is different and New Zealand is no different in this regard.

“If you look at something like fomite transmission, for example, the transfer of the virus across surfaces. There’s not a huge amount of international attention being paid to that, because most of those other countries are just dealing with the transmission of Covid-19 from people to people,” he says.

“Whereas in New Zealand, because we don’t have the same degree of people-to-people transmission because of the very good protective measures we’ve got in place, we’re more attuned to things like fomite transmission.”

Elimination here to stay

It also helps that people here generally comply with the rules – and Hipkins says he doesn’t take that for granted.

“I think that the New Zealand public is very supportive of the overall strategy that the Government has pursued. I’m very mindful of that in the decisions that we’re taking. We want to keep the public with us and I’m very conscious of that.

“I do want to make sure that we preserve that really strong degree of goodwill and willingness among the public to comply with what we’re asking them to do. That is one of the things that sets us apart. Other countries have tried to do some of the things that we’ve done and not had the degree of public goodwill that we’ve had.”

Partially, he says, it is this compliance that has allowed us to pursue and achieve elimination of Covid-19. While New Zealand cycled from mitigation to suppression to elimination rapidly back in March, he says that the current approach is here to stay.

“Elimination is working for New Zealand. What you’ve seen with the most recent, small outbreaks that we’ve dealt with, we actually have a way to preserve that status,” he says.

“We will have people with Covid-19 coming into New Zealand across the border. Aside from completely closing the border altogether, which is just not a possible option, we are going to have that happen. The question then is, okay, are you first of all minimising the chance of anybody else picking it up, so any transmission, and I’m pretty confident that we’ve got really good systems in place. And then the second question is, in the event that something happens and someone else gets it, are we able to quickly stamp it out again?

“Those six cases that we’ve dealt with where we’ve managed to contain it to just a handful of people, I think are a sign that the system is working as we need it to work.”

The double pandemic?

And while Hipkins thinks a full system review is too large an undertaking, he enthusiastically endorses the piecemeal approach to reviewing the response. This has seen individual audits of contact tracing, infection control in managed isolation and community and border testing, each of which has returned a suite of recommendations which the Government has generally implemented.

“We’ll review the resurgence plan based on our experience of these last eight or so different events that we’ve had to deal with. What you’ll see from the cases that we’ve been dealing with in the last couple of weeks is we are getting better at dealing with small outbreaks of Covid-19 faster and avoiding the need for escalation. Escalation should be a last resort,” he says.

At the same time, Hipkins admits that escalating alert levels – including to lockdown – is still on the table if the circumstances warrant it.

“It gives me a few sleepless nights while I’m worrying about whatever the latest developments might be, but it does mean that we’re able to continue to go about our daily lives a bit more than we otherwise would be.”

Then again, it could always get worse, he allows.

“One of the things that I am looking at is, if we ended up dealing with another pandemic at the same time, are we equipped for that? I’ve been working very closely with Ayesha Verrall on that,” Hipkins says.

“Similarly, I look at things like, what if we dealt with a big natural disaster at the same time as our response. A big earthquake or something like that.”

While the Covid-19 role may fade in a few years’ time, he suspects that New Zealand and the world will have to be ready for future pandemics.

“I don’t want to sound alarmist about this, but I think we have to accept that we may well be moving into an age where pandemics are more of a reality and we’ll have to deal with them more often. I think the whole world has had a lesson in both how to deal with pandemics and how not to deal with pandemics, over the last 12 months or so,” he says.

“And we do have to learn the lessons from that because we could well find ourselves having to repeat some of this again in the future.”

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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