*This story was first published on October 27, 2021*

Health briefings obtained by Newsroom show the Government only began planning for a Delta outbreak in late July, just weeks before the virus escaped MIQ in August, Marc Daalder reports

A single bullet-point in a late July health report is the first sign that the Government was preparing for a Delta outbreak.

Officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) told Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins they were “considering refinements to plans in light of the Delta variant and the global up trend in maritime outbreaks”.

The reference appears in an excerpt from a Covid-19 weekly report provided to Hipkins on July 22, released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act alongside a number of other documents about how Delta might alter the Covid-19 response.

Two weeks later, officials provided more details, with health officials saying “the increasing transmissibility of the Delta variant also prompts the need to ensure our measures to present in-MIQF transmission are as strong as possible” and DPMC advising that a system-wide workshop on Delta was scheduled for August 10.

On August 6, Hipkins received a more extensive briefing about how the response would shift in light of the danger that Delta posed.

“In order to maintain elimination, our response will need to be faster, possibly last for longer, employ more stringent public health measures than may have been previously used, and possibly use these more widely, including the use of Alert Level 4 restrictions if necessary,” Ministry of Health officials told Hipkins.

The next day, a traveller from New South Wales infected with Covid-19 arrived in the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility. Within days, the virus would be circulating in the community. By the time Hipkins signed off on the briefing, on August 12, he had already publicly warned that Level 4 might be needed to tackle Delta, but it was another five days until the outbreak was discovered.

That day, August 17, was also the day a report on Government-wide readiness for Delta was due to be submitted to chief executives of government departments. The bulk of the Delta preparedness work programme wasn’t scheduled to be completed until the end of August and “larger pieces of work” were still slated to be done only in mid-September.

National Party Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop said the documents show the Government waited until too late to begin planning for Delta, with the work only truly getting started once the virus was in the community.

“The documents seem to back up what we and others have been saying for a while now, which is that there was a real lack of preparedness for Delta,” he said.

“You know we did such a good job in 2020 that I think the Government essentially went into a bit of complacency for the first six months of 2021, and really only started to grapple with the reality of Delta basically around about the time that Delta turned up. So, literally, these documents are contemporaneous with Delta arriving into New Zealand on the 7th of August, one of the briefings is dated the 6th of August.”

Delta first arrived in MIQ in April. By June, when a man from Sydney who was infectious with Delta toured Wellington for a weekend, forcing the capital to Level 2, the variant had already caused crippling outbreaks in India, Fiji and a range of other countries. In early July, top epidemiologist Sir David Skegg and his Government-commissioned public health strategy group told the Government to begin preparing for the likelihood of a Delta outbreak.

However, the first mention of changes to the response came in the July 22 weekly report. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health didn’t say when that work programme began.

“Ministry of Health regularly reviews the latest developments in the Covid-19 pandemic globally and reviews and adjusts the ministry’s strategy and planning in response. Planning in response to Delta is part of this ongoing work, rather than a separate programme,” the spokesperson said.

The August 6 briefing said a working group had been established to drive a new work programme in light of Delta. Four main areas of focus were revising the settings with the alert level system and how alert levels would be used in response to Delta, assessing case management and contact tracing systems, preparing for how an outbreak might affect the vaccination programme and “assessing the response capacity and capability to support a sustained ‘worst-case scenario’ response”.

In an exclusive interview with Newsroom unrelated to this story, Hipkins said there was nothing New Zealand could have done to stop Delta.

“Our defences were pretty well fortified,” he said.

“I don’t think there were any defences that would have dealt with the risk of Delta. When you’ve got a virus that can spread from person to person to person in a 24-hour period, I’m not sure there is any system that is going to be robust enough in that sort of environment.”

Bishop disagreed, saying the Government ran the same response to Delta in 2021 that it used with the original virus in 2020.

“It just seems like the Government put all their eggs in one basket and said, ‘We’ve done it before. Elimination worked for us in 2020. We know how to do it. We’ll just do it again,’” he said.

“That didn’t work. Now we are running really fast to catch up and not doing that well.”

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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