How many times does Rob Fyfe, the PM's go-to adviser on Covid, have to mount one of his "Vesuvius" eruptions, before Jacinda Ardern just tells the bureaucracy to let business into the tent?
Fyfe's interview with radio host Mike Hosking — coming off the back of Sir Ian Taylor's urgings to Ardern to bring the business "bench into play" — has sparked other players to voice among themselves their own frustrations with dealing with the bureaucrats on Covid-related issues.
There was just one of those group exercises in frustration at a webinar organised by the NZ Institute thinktank this week where Mainfreight's Don Braid and Auckland Airport's Adrian Littlewood shared difficulties (and potential solutions) to issues they were confronting as they worked to keep their teams secure from the virus.
Trouble is Braid and Littlewood are speaking to the converted.
They probably have Ardern's ear. But the person that senior business leaders as a whole need to be talking directly to — without the pussy footing that they sometimes indulge in if they are wary of political pushback — is Ardern herself.
This is not the first time that Fyfe has broken cover.
He was brought into the frame by Ardern early last year after a small group including Sir Stephen Tindall, Sam Morgan, Craig Heatley and Nick Mowbray put up red flags on Covid.
As is usual in these situations they were asked to sign up to a long-standing 9th floor rule to keep their conversations private if they were to effectively become confidantes of the PM and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. Nothing should reach the media, is the usual ground rule.
Fyfe became the PM's business liaison on Covid. By May 18, 2020 he was letting it be known he had been effectively cold-shouldered by bureaucrats after working without pay for eight weeks at the peak of the initial Covid-19 crisis.
Fast-forward to September 2021 and what has changed?
Fyfe — like other business people who have had the PM's ear — are not blaming her directly for the failure to get cut-through with the bureaucracy.
But a phone-around suggests there is much that could have happened by now if the bureaucracy had not decided to put the walls up.
There have been ideas aplenty springing from business — such as a privately-funded MIQ built on Auckland Airport land, and perhaps designed by Beca and built by Fletcher Building which could have been in place by now and ensured exporters and the professionals that business has been screaming out for were accommodated months ago; and developments like Morgan's Covid Card and Rako Science's saliva testing to name just a few.
Calls to get vaccinations in place much, much earlier in the face of Delta — including a potential offer from a well-placed businessman to use his international connections to source a major influx of Pfizer vaccines at a time when the Government was forecasting we might run out mid-year.
All this is what you would expect a fully functioning business sector to do.
Much as when the major US pharma companies sprang into action and started developing cutting-edge Covid vaccines when challenged to under Donald Trump's Operation Warp Speed.
But here it would appear that while New Zealanders are renown for their "can do" approach, our bureaucracy's response is "can't".
As Fyfe told the Hosking breakfast show on NewstalkZB, "you don't have to get too far into the system before everything just grinds down to a slow-motion train smash. The system is overwhelmed by what they are trying to deal with."
Fyfe stopped short of naming director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield as a prime blockage, instead focusing on the Ministry of Health which he portrayed as over-burdened through dealing with a long-running crisis. As indeed did Taylor when he pointed to a worn out bench.
Bloomfield has become a national icon. He's been memorialised on everything from mugs and T-shirts to his infamous eyebrow twitch when Cabinet minister Chris Hipkins made his awkward "spread your legs" gaffe.
He's been deferring to the Prime Minister on the "podium of truth" at 1pm lockdown briefings for close to 18 months now. This has led to some media claiming (erroneously) that he is the political puppeteer to Ardern. That is fanciful.
Ardern bends over backwards to assert hers and Cabinet's independence. But something has to give. This is a difficult judgment call.
There has been obvious incompetence particularly around the Auckland border.
An exercised Braid said publicly that Bloomfield didn't consult the trucking industry about a plan to regularly test drivers for Covid-19.
"There's been absolutely no consultation about that whatsoever. Our drivers are crossing the border every night, every day, moving food and water to the nation, working their butts off, and this comes out of the blue. It's a ludicrous statement to make without consultation with the industry and with those on the ground doing the job," he said then.
A pragmatic solution was finally worked out with input from the EMA's Brett O'Riley and Auckland Business Chamber's Michael Barnett and the deputy PM.
Barnett and O'Riley talk about a situation where Auckland-based officials are more pragmatic — than their Wellington head offices — and more in tune with what business needs in NZ's commercial capital. But consultation still comes too much after the announcement.
Fyfe's experience has been mirrored by that of Sir Brian Roche.
A review by public health experts — as part of the independent advisory group led by Roche — into the February cases earlier this year found the Ministry of Health was reluctant to increase surge capacity for contact-tracing, and had been unwilling to stress-test the system or do scenario-planning.
This was contested later by Bloomfield.
But more than a year ago, Roche and Heather Simpson recommended taking the Covid operations out of Health into a standalone agency.
As Roche said such an organisation needs to be accountable for NZ's pandemic preparedness and the oversight of its execution in the same way we "have a national emergency office".
In mid-August, Roche again said that advice to set up a stand-alone agency was given at the end of 2020 and it was being "actively pursued again as recently as two days ago".
Hipkins responded it was best placed with the Ministry of Health.
Is this really good enough?
Despite what Arden has said publicly this week as she indicated a pragmatic shift to opening NZ borders in a controlled fashion will occur once we have reached a high vaccination rate, there are indications that there are still caveats around the plan to "reconnect NZ to the world" in the first quarter of 2022.
Ardern has signalled a goal for Auckland to reach a 90 per cent vaccination rate by Monday October 4 — the day Cabinet will decide whether to/or not shift Auckland out of alert level 3 down to level 2 so that more people can get back to work and people can travel outside of Auckland's borders again.
This is a very high bar.
Legislation introduced to Parliament this week ensures that penalties for breaches of Covid-19 orders are set to significantly increase from early November 2021 to "better reflect the seriousness of any behaviour that threatens New Zealand's response to the virus", according to Hipkins.
What Hipkins' press release did not say is that the terms of the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act will be extended from May 2022 to May 2023.
This implies we will be living under strictures for a very long time.
Time surely to resurrect the proposal from the Prime Minister's former Advisory Council to engage the capability of business leaders in a Business Recovery taskforce and Reform Commission.
And time for the Prime Minister to assert herself over the bureaucracy and direct them to invite business on to the field, and let them play a fully-fledged part in the recovery.