“You asked me: When you joined the Air Force as a young eighteen year-old, is this something you imagined doing? The answer is: Absolutely not,” Air Commodore Darryn Webb says.
Webb was seconded from his current role as an Assistant Chief of Defence for Capability to the Covid-19 response for nearly a year and quickly became a household face and name, particularly after he took over the MIQ programme in June.
“This isn’t the sort of thing that you’d ordinarily think you’re going to do when you join the Defence Force, and myself included,” he says.
In December, he stepped down from the pandemic response to return to his old position, handing the job of running New Zealand’s most wide-ranging quarantine programme since the 1919 flu pandemic over to Army Brigadier Jim Bliss.
“I’m absolutely proud of the role. It’s been a surreal experience,” Webb says.
That doesn’t mean it came without its challenges.
‘HQ Holden of the skies’
In many ways, Webb’s career prepared him for the complex, inter-agency coordination that was needed to run MIQ.
Like many others in the NZDF, the Air Commodore comes from a military family.
“My dad was an Air Force pilot, so being around airplanes as a young lad, we lived on air force bases so I had a strong understanding about aviation and airplanes and those sorts of things. From an early age, for me, I just wanted to be an air force pilot. That was my dream,” he says.
He joined up straight out of high school and ended up flying C-130 Hercules transport planes. He calls them the “HQ Holden of the skies”.
“They go everywhere, do everything, whatever is required whenever it’s required. Opportunities to fly all around the world, from the South Pole, literally, through to combat zones all around the world.”
Webb ended up commanding a squadron of Hercules craft. After two decades in the cockpit, however, he went for a change of scenery. Webb ended up in Wellington in the Strategic Commitments and Engagement Branch of the Defence Force.
“That’s the interface with other government agencies. It was a great opportunity to start to meet colleagues at that working group level. When the rest of New Zealand needs the Defence Force’s help, they try to work out how to make that happen, and that was one of my jobs,” he says. That ability to work well with agencies outside of the military would prove crucial for the Covid-19 response.
For four years after that, Webb was in charge of the Air Force base at Ohakea, managing 1,000 Defence Force members living and working on the base. In early 2018, he moved to his current role as the Assistant Chief of Defence responsible for Capability.
“In simple terms, that’s just ensuring that the Defence Force has the right equipment to ensure it can do the wide-ranging jobs asked of it by the Government.”
Webb is used to change in his life. Growing up as the son of an Air Force pilot, he moved from place to place frequently. When he had his own family, that continued, as he bounced from Wellington to Ohakea to Upper Hutt and then back to Wellington. That set him up well for the rapid series of changes he would experience and have to manage when the pandemic hit New Zealand’s shores.
“It feels like about 12 months ago when most parts of New Zealand were starting to get familiar with what came through Wuhan and [were wondering] how far and wide was it going to go?” he says.
As international borders closed and other countries plunged into lockdown, the everyone in Defence House trialled working from home. It was while he was at home one day in mid-March that Webb got a phone call from the Chief of the Air Force Andrew Clark.
“Floods of Kiwis [were] coming back to New Zealand and of course the thousands of foreign nationals who were here [were] trying to get home. The chief of air force rang me and said, ‘Listen, we need some help. We are involved as part of the All-of-Government team and we are seeking someone who might be able to assist as part of a repatriation task,” Webb recalls.
“I joined that team and led that team. We were based up at the Police National Headquarters for most of it. We had all sorts of agencies – [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade], ourselves, Police, Customs, aviation security, Air New Zealand – embedded in there as well. We set about moving 62,000 people over a few months.
“Really big operation, really rewarding. All the sort of logistical and various operational factors that go into doing that, on a backdrop of increasing concern and risk as borders were closing around the world and there was a lot of uncertainty and change going on.”
That first role in the Covid-19 response set Webb up for leading the MIQ team.
“It also enabled me to be part of that All-of-Government working team. We would have routine meetings day-by-day, so I got to know all of those key players in that wider response team. That definitely helped when I was subsequently asked to do the next job.”
‘She won’t be right’
That next job presented Webb with a host of challenges.
“We’ve seen the settings constantly change and I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of those settings as it goes into the future. Really it was, take a stocktake look at what was working well. At that time, everybody was in a rapid response phase, in a triage mode, if you like. It was pretty lean, people doing their absolute best, working really really hard, but everyone was quite tired,” he says.
“We had to strengthen, in every sense of that word.”
That meant creating a larger team, working to achieve consistency of policy and implementation across the 32 MIQ facilities in five cities and managing the scale of the project.
“Then of course the workforce and making sure that was set up to be resilient, to be well-trained, across increasingly complex health protocols. This is stuff we don’t normally deal with on a daily basis. Only a small proportion of the population lives or works in a health setting, in a hospital, and those hotels were increasingly needing to look and feel like that,” he says.
In particular, Webb says, he wants to highlight the hard work of the hotel staff.
“Their job is to provide a service which is all about a quality of outcome, and in a setting like an MIQ now, it’s 180 degrees out from that. We’re asking people not to behave as normal social creatures that humans are. We are operating in what we would describe as a low-trust model, not a high-trust model. For Kiwis, the DNA is wired that ‘she’ll be right’ and our approach was ‘she won’t be right.’”
Defence Force members working in the facilities made sacrifices too.
“It’s absolutely a deployment. It’s a stressful task. It’s repetitive, it’s monotonous, but the consequences and the stakes are really high,” he says.
Then there’s keeping up with constant, rapid changes of policy.
“One of the biggest challenges is that constant change. We were constantly working with the Ministry and other agencies to adapt to what we were learning about the virus. They were happening fast and you didn’t have much time to implement those changes at a large scale,” Webb says.
Webb is, however, doubtful that a fundamental like purpose-built MIQ facilities is on the cards. Building them further from city centres would add in new risks around transporting people safely from the airport to the new facilities while avoiding any infection risk.
“It’s always been evolutionary more than revolutionary in its response,” he says.
Looking ahead, he thinks that his successor Jim Bliss will be dealing with even more change. In particular, vaccines and potential travel zones will have major effects on the way the MIQ system functions, but exactly how that will play out in policy terms remains unclear.