How the govt and Ministry of Health have failed New Zealanders
(This was my letter to the editor of the ADLS's LawTalk of 22 October 2021.)
The letters in LawTalk 36 critical of Warren Pyke's "An epidemic of experts: time for the tyranny to end," prompt me to make some observations.
Although, contrary to its own claims the government did not "go early" in its 2020 response to the pandemic, its failure to act when warning signs started sneaking out of Wuhan was not much different to many other governments. My article about this was published by NBR 12 May 2020. To its credit, when it acted, the government did "go hard". But its failure to take advantage of the respite the successful lockdowns had afforded the country and to prepare for the future is inexcusable. In this its major mistake was to rely on the Ministry of Health and in particular the Director-General who was given superstar status, the pre-eminent "expert".
This mistake was at least in part a consequence of a profoundly important governance failure. A group of cabinet ministers with adequate governance expertise would have received advice from all relevant officials/advisers, interrogated them to test and if necessary, challenge their advice, send them away and then decide, taking responsibility and accepting accountability for their decisions. Instead, Dr Bloomfield was given Oracle status and according to recent revelations from the Prime Minister has been participating in the decision-making process instead of being an advisor whose advice may or may not be accepted, and about whom ministers could have free and frank discussion in his absence before making their decisions.
My experience of the Ministry of Health, intermittently over decades, casts it as the worst type of bureaucracy, displaying protectiveness of itself and a sublime belief in its own omniscience and superiority, secrecy, ineffectiveness, inefficiency, and the use of power as a substitute for enterprise and innovative thinking. The most recent example of the last characteristic is the pernicious attempt to obtain statutory power to expropriate not just the goods but also the services of testing laboratories (forcing them to work for the government) in the amending Covid legislation, before a select committee as I write this.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Ministry's preparations during 2020 and earlier 2021 have been characterised by shocking neglect. Cabinet has not had what takes to insist upon disaster contingency planning with the result that all the good work done last year has been squandered and, today, New Zealanders are being subjected to the loss of freedoms Warren Pryke wrote about. He is in the excellent company of Lord Sumption who has been outspoken about the destruction of liberty in the UK.
The Ministry's disaster contingency planning failure now is a continuation of its neglect since the passage of the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006. As I discussed in my NBR article, it is characteristic of New Zealand bureaucracies that they give themselves power, often do not do anything or are ineffective in the implementation of what they have been empowered to do and then seek more power as the answer to the problems their own hubris and neglect have caused or contributed.