The first cab off the rank for the newly-formed Covid advisory group is working out how the Government and health officials got the communication around the February Valentine’s Day cluster so wrong, writes political editor Jo Moir

The Government’s new Covid-19 special advisory board was announced by Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins on March 9.

It came in the wake of public and political backlash over new case categories, and how their introduction added to mixed messaging about who should be tested and isolated.

The board, which includes chair Sir Brian Roche and former Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe, met with Hipkins for the first time last week.

The group is expected to meet at least twice a month and provide real-time updates and advice to the Minister as it sees fit.

Newsroom understands the board is currently in the fact-finding phase of gathering information from the February cluster and will formally start reviewing what went wrong after Easter.

Fyfe says New Zealand will need to be cautious around reopening of borders as the world faces a fourth wave of the pandemic and Covid-19 numbers spike in the Northern Hemisphere, the NZ Herald reports. “We’re far from out of the woods,” he warned on a Trans-Tasman Business circle panel discussion with Helen Clark and Sir Peter Gluckman.

“We’ve relied so heavily on the border as our primary barrier against infection and as we move away from that as our primary defence there is some jeopardy.”

It would be crucial that testing regimes, contact-tracing regimes and managed isolation processes were operating at an optimum state. “I’m not confident we’re there at this point in time,” he said.

Newsroom understands the communication, or lack of, during the February cluster will be a big focus of advisory group’s initial review.

During that outbreak ‘close-plus’ and ‘casual-plus’ categories were added to the long-established close contacts and casual contacts designations.

The effect was the new technical terms scuppered what had been a simple messaging system up until that point.

While the new case terms were already in use by clinicians and officials, they’d never entered the public domain before.

Introducing them in February only added to the public’s confusion about whether to stay home, get tested, and self-isolate or not.

In the same way, some epidemiologists have called for more alert levels to be introduced – for now the Government has resisted doing so to try and keep the alert levels simple.

It’s likely the Government will ditch the new case categories in any future cluster for the exact same reason.

Contact tracing will be another key part of the review, in particular, comparing February’s cluster to the August one.

Both clusters put Auckland into level three lockdown and the rest of the country into level two.

While the standard of contact tracing had lifted considerably by February, the board will still be looking for where there is room for improvement.

Another area the board and the Government needs to get to grips with is moving the country from a pandemic state to a post-pandemic state and then eventually to an endemic state.

Some of that work is already underway with the roll-out of vaccinations and progress being made towards travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands.

The bottom-line will be that New Zealand holds onto its elimination strategy, but work will need to be done to ensure the country can open up to others in the future.

Contributions from the likes of Fyfe and Roache, who both have considerable business experience will be vital in progressing that.

The other board members: chief advisor for the Pacific at the Ministry of Health, Dr Debbie Ryan; epidemiologist Professor Philip Hill; and public health expert Dr Dale Bramley, who offers a Māori health perspective, will also have important networks and skill sets to tap into once the board begins to look ahead.

This group has the advantage of covering both the public and private sector, along with Māori and Pacific expertise, and will be a truly independent voice for the Covid Response Minister.

While some of the board’s work will continue to be reactive, over time a lot more of it will become proactive and eventually start to shift towards future planning.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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