The instant reaction in some quarters to news that the so-called 'robust' processes put in place to prevent Covid-19 from re-entering New Zealand via our airports were a sham was to demand that heads should roll. Others, including the Prime Minister, were more forgiving, her view being that nothing was to be gained from launching a "witch hunt."

That position depends on accepting efforts, primarily by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, to minimise the scale of the "lapse."

The releasing of two women from quarantine so they could travel from Auckland to Wellington by car after the death of a parent, followed by revelations that a child and a teenager had similarly been released early to attend a funeral in Hamilton, and who, far from returning to quarantine, had 'disappeared,' all without being tested for Covid-19, turned out to be the tip of an extremely disconcerting iceberg.

We are now told that the processes designed to prevent Covid-19 from re-entering weren't worth the paper they were written on, raising the prospect of another significant outbreak.

Advertisement

It is reasonable to ask now whether the 24 days during which no new cases were reported was an illusion. It seems more likely that the Covid-free run was simply the result of a lack of testing, given that now, with proper adherence to the processes put in place before the limited re-opening of the borders, new cases are being reported on a daily basis.

If that is the case, then who knows how many people infected with this virus might at this very moment be moving about freely from one end of the country to the other, totally unaware that they are potentially infectious?

This is much more than a "slip-up," as Bloomfield would have it. This has the potential to complete the destruction of the economy that began with the level 4 lockdown imposed in March. This could see thousands more businesses go broke, tens of thousands more people lose their jobs and livelihoods. Schools and universities can forget getting their foreign students back any time soon, and those who rely on foreign tourists can kiss their futures goodbye.

This "slip-up" has all the makings of an unmitigated disaster.

Even now, with the Ministry of Health's processes revealed as anything but robust, the revelations keep coming. Recent arrivals continue to be accommodated in close proximity to others who are nearing the completion of their quarantine, so might well be infected after they get here, and late last week the pending delivery of busloads of arrivals to an Auckland hotel prompted not unreasonable protests from the permanent residents. The abandoning of that plan almost certainly had more to do with negative publicity for the ministry and government than any realisation that it might not have been a good idea.

Bloomfield and the Prime Minister have long been saying that more cases of Covid-19 could be expected as the borders were re-opened, in most cases for New Zealanders coming home, but we were led to believe that anyone who was infected would be identified before they were allowed out of quarantine. It now seems that the testing that we were told were key to preventing the further spread of the virus was voluntary. Some say they were put into quarantine but were never offered a test, some claiming that they requested tests but were declined.

Last week some passengers on an Air New Zealand flight criticised the airline's "lax" attitude to their safety. They said they had asked for greater separation, and room was available, but were reassured by the pilot that there was no need to worry as the Covid-19 situation was under control in New Zealand. A flight attendant told them that they had been assumed to be fit to travel.

We now know that one of those passengers was infected, the third new case in as many days.

Advertisement

While we have been rejoicing in the freedom of lockdown level 1, it seems we have been playing Russian roulette. Maybe the appointment of Air Commodore Darryn Webb to oversee the quarantining process will fix the leaks, but it should not have come to this. And maybe the Prime Minister is right not to be fixating specifically on who did and did not do what, but she is wrong when she puts it down to a failure of the system. It is a failure of those whose job it was to comply with a system that we were told would protect us and our economy from this virus, and has failed, spectacularly, to do so.

From what we have been told, we are entitled to believe that if the process had been followed to the letter, we would not have this shambles. Airport arrivals, whether they were returning home or coming here to work, would have been quarantined, they would have been tested twice and declared free of the virus before they were allowed out.

Those who had begun their quarantine would not have been mixing with those fresh off the plane, a failure that renders the entire quarantining process a farce.

So should heads roll? Yes they should. Surely there is no better time than this to make the point that gross negligence, if that is what this is found to be, must have consequences.

The Ministry of Health has hardly covered itself in glory at any stage of its response to this pandemic. It's inability to distribute PPE to the people who needed it, followed by a similar failure to distribute flu vaccinations, should have prepared us for this quarantining debacle.

To allow two women, one of whom was reportedly exhibiting mild symptoms of Covid-19, to leave Auckland without first being tested defies all explanation, but we are entitled to one all the same. To pat us on the head and assure us that this was a "slip-up" doesn't begin to cut it. This might not be the time for a witch hunt, and we should not be baying for public humiliation, but someone needs to be held accountable.

That won't undo any of the damage that has potentially been done, but it will send a message that the civil service, and government ministers, desperately need to hear.

It has become fashionable to declare that accepting blame for one's failings and making way for some more competent is the easy way out. The much more difficult option is to stay put and make amends. That is self-serving rubbish. In this case at least, the services of those who enabled such an egregious failure to follow what we were told was a robust process designed to protect our lives and livelihoods are no longer needed.

We don't need to know names, and we don't need public humiliation of those responsible, but we are entitled to know that the civil service does not tolerate incompetence on such a grand scale. The government should also be keen to know if lying about what was being done, as Ardern implied when the whole quarantine process began unravelling, can be added to the ministry's charge sheet. That would be a big step up from good old-fashioned ineptitude.

The fact that incompetence has long been accepted in the civil service, in stark contrast to the private sector, might explain why nothing ever changes. Why would it? For all the mission statements and talk to the contrary, we ceased pursuing, or expecting, excellence in this country a very long time ago. In the past that might not have mattered much, but this time it does.

This is no ordinary fiasco. This time we are talking about people's lives and our national economy. Cock-ups don't come much bigger than this, and it needs to be taken much more seriously than we have seen so far.