Covid 19 coronavirus: Why the Government’s border vulnerabilities won’t lose it any votes – for now

OPINION

The National Party was likely licking its lips following further holes in the Government’s Covid response being exposed this week.

The party’s Covid spokesman Chris Bishop presented himself in front of media to justifiably howl his disapproval, but questions predictably turned to National’s woes of the week: the retirement of Nick Smith and the resignation of Upper Harbour candidate Jake Bezzant.

Mystery still surrounds who told Smith about an imminent media splash – still yet to emerge – on an employment inquiry involving him, which in part led to his retirement. Party leader Judith Collins denies it was her.

And the allegations against Bezzant – which he denies – has Collins publicly thanking voters for not making him MP, so she doesn’t have to deal with him.

These ongoing troubles hardly leave National in a position to gleefully sweep up any voters who are disgruntled with the Government.

And despite how much better the protections at the border should have been, the public will generally keep supporting the Government as long as our communities remain virus-free.

It’s still barely believable that the system to monitor the testing of border workers was so blind for so long.

We now know that in April – seven months after regular testing for border workers became a legal requirement – the Government still had very little idea about who was flouting the rules.

The Government was getting daily numbers for border workers’ tests, but not the number of tests there should have been.

There were a number of reasons for this.

The Border Worker Testing Register (BWTR) was voluntary, meaning we only had eyes on the workers who had been signed up by their employers.

The WhosOnLocation (WOL) system, where workers signing in for their shift would generate a testing schedule on the BWTR, was not always used.

And there were delays and inaccuracies in linking workers in the BWTR with their National Health Index number, which matches the worker with their testing history.

Around the same time a positive result came back for the MIQ security guard who lied about being tested for five months, there were a staggering 1104 MIQ workers – or 23 per cent of the MIQ workforce – whose NHI numbers were yet to be matched.

We were also flying blind on the wider border workforce outside MIQ, which is some 8000 more workers.

We might have had an idea on the level of compliance in that group if the Government had done regular compliance checks.

Indeed, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called out the security guard for lying, she added that the Government also had a responsibility for ensuring its laws were being followed.

An Official Information Act request from the Weekend Herald asked for any records or results of compliance checks on border employers outside of MIQ.

The answer was none.

Someone thankfully decided that this state of affairs was unsatisfactory, and the BTWR became mandatory from the end of April.

Health chief Ashley Bloomfield now tells us that everything is hunky dory.

A mandatory BTWR means we have a better idea of how many people need to be regularly tested – and how many daily tests there should be.

Everyone entering a border or MIQ worksite now has to use WOL.

And the number of MIQ workers who aren’t NHI matched is now fewer than 90.

Perhaps most importantly, a team and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has been set up to “interrogate” the BTWR data, and then ask employers to get proof that their workers are being tested.

A compliance check, in other words.

Bloomfield insists there is now no way to hide non-compliance by, for example, lying about being tested and avoiding WOL as the security guard did.

There are still silos that make the data stream less than seamless, but the Government always has to be mindful of privacy and civil rights’ concerns, especially regarding data about where people are and their private medical records.

Why it’s taken so long to get here is a good question, and goes to the heart of the Kitteridge review last year that told the Government to be more prepared and less reactive.

How such border vulnerabilities didn’t lead to more cases is also a valid question – and highlights what the Government has done well.

There have been so few cases leaking from the border into the community because there have been so few cases.

The Government froze flights from India, which would have filled MIQ facilities with the virus.

The MIQ rooms freed up by the transtasman bubble could have been opened in a way that increased risk at the border. This would have pleased businesses crying out for more migrant workers, but the Government put safety first.

And most cases showing up at the border have been picked up early with day 0/1 tests in MIQ, who are then moved to the Jet Park Hotel. Others in their travel bubble are also moved to the Jet Park so they’re already in quarantine if they later test positive.

The greater danger for the Government in terms of voter dissatisfaction is when the vaccine rollout rubber really hits the road, given the Auditor-General’s report on how easily everything could tip over.

Whether National is in a position to take advantage, should that eventuate, remains to be seen.

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