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National Party leader Simon Bridges and Ashley Bloomfield have come face-to-face in a tense Zoom exchange with a frustrated Bridges accusing the health boss of wanting to control the "information flow" to New Zealanders.

Bloomfield was appearing before the Epidemic Response Committee on Wednesday, following emotional testimony and tears as members of the public shared their heartbreaking stories of suffering during lockdown.

Bloomfield felt the heat from Bridges, the committee chairman, over the way he had handled the release of information during the crisis.

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MPs heard from a new mother, who had given birth at during alert level 4 who was not able to have her partner with her during a "traumatic" birth.

They were also told about a family whose lasting memory of their son, after a suspected suicide, was his body being removed from their home – he was not given a funeral due to the lockdown restrictions.

Although Bloomfield did not hear all of the stories of the people who had submitted to the committee earlier on Wednesday, he expressed sympathy for their situations when he appeared before the MPs.

But during the meeting, Bridges lashed out at Bloomfield over communications from his ministry.

"Here's the point, the Government suspended the OIA [Official Information Act] and we've been waiting over two weeks for your department to answer written questions," Bridges said.

"Why don't you answer simple health questions to the one parliamentary committee on this remarkably significant issue?

"I'll be quite frank with you, I don't think it's a resourcing issue.

"I think it comes down to one simple thing. You don't want to answer because you want to control the information flow and do this in a time and a way convenient to you and the Government," Bridges said.

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Bloomfield rejected Bridges' comments.

"Part of my role as a public servant, and I've been one for many years, is to ensure there is good information and right from the start of this response we've been very open and communicating very regularly with the public.

"However, if there is an issue I will personally take that up with the clerk of the committee, with what is the questions still outstanding and I will work with my team to get those responses as soon as possible.

"Communications with the public have been absolutely fundamental and I made myself available on almost a daily basis to media because I felt that was an incredibly important part of ensuring all New Zealanders knew what was going on."

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Auckland man Bjorn Reymer shared his wife's experience of being told she had a miscarriage, while he was forced to wait in the hospital's car park.

"She was given a box of tissues and left alone," Reymer told MPs.

The stories come as the Government begins the process of deciding whether or not New Zealand is ready to move into alert level 2.

Cabinet will make that call on Monday.

But before it does, Bloomfield said more data was needed.

He said officials wouldn't know if it was safe to move to level 2 until the end of this week.

He told the committee this morning that the virus had a two-week incubation period, so two weeks at level 3 was apt.

"We're looking very carefully at what other countries are doing," he said.

That's countries that have managed the virus well, and those who haven't.

Bloomfield added that a careful step down period out of lockdown is what a lot of other successful countries have done.

Going into level 2 is also dependent on where cases came from.

It would be a red flag if cases started popping up that were not linked to existing clusters.

Tragedy of funeral lockdown rules

The last memory distraught parents have of their 18-year-old son who died during lockdown was his body being removed from their home.

The tragedy of the death, a suspected suicide, was just one case touched on by Funeral Directors of New Zealand executive director David Moger when he appeared during the committee this morning.

Families of 2000 people who died during lockdown have not been able to properly grieve because of lockdown restrictions. Photo / 123rf
Families of 2000 people who died during lockdown have not been able to properly grieve because of lockdown restrictions. Photo / 123rf

Moger said that the last memory the parents had of their son was him being taken away from the home, and not sending him off properly at a funeral.

Moger said more than 2000 people died during the lockdown.

And because of the level 4 and 3 restrictions, the families of those 2000 people have not been able to properly grieve.

He called on the Government to organise a national minute's silence to acknowledge those who have died in lockdown.

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"We know that families need a meaningful farewell as part of that grieving process."
National leader Simon Bridges agreed, and said he would support Moger's calls for the national one minute silence.

'Inhumane' rules around births during lockdown

The committee also heard from Rebekah, who did not wish to provide her last name.

She said she was one of thousands of woman who gave birth during lockdown – a baby girl named Trinity.

Rebekah, based in Wellington, said the guidance was confusing and lobbying to the Government was ignored.

She said information was hard to get and birthing rules were different at different hospitals.

Rebekah, who was emotional during her appearance, said it was a human right to have a support person during birthing.

Her support person pulled out of her home birth plan at 38 weeks.

"I absolutely did not want to be pregnant anymore," she said.

Another midwife pulled out of supporting her after that as well – she said she was "terrified".

"I felt like an animal," she said.

She said her partner was not able to stay on for long after her birth – which took place at the hospital.

"I don't support the draconian reasons for my partner not being able to be there," she said.

"The requirement to be alone was inhumane."

Rebekah said post-birth, she missed out on a lot of post-natal support.

This made her feel like she "had no worth as a mother".

She said her birthing experiences has left her "disempowered."

National MP Louise Upston and Green co-leader Marama Davidson praised Rebekah for sharing her story with the committee.

Rebekah said she spoke because she "really wanted to make a difference".

"I really hope that something changes."

'I am probably one of the lucky ones,' says breast cancer survivor

The committee also heard from Jennifer, 66, living in Northland who, like Rebekah did not want to be named.

She is living off her pension and has no other income, she told MPs.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer during lockdown – she was told over the phone.

The surgery on the tumour was considered to be elective, she said.

The operation wait time was usually around eight weeks, but due to the lockdown she said she could be waiting to up to six months.

She was also told that any more urgent surgeries would take priority – meaning her surgery could be pushed back.

But she was told by a doctor they had a slot open in early April – she went ahead with the surgery in Auckland at a private hospital.

The doctor agreed to a 20 per cent discount, given she was on the pension.

But the surgery was $15,000.

"I am probably one of the lucky ones," she said.

But she added that she felt "very badly let down" by the public health care system in Northland.

The saga caused her an enormous amount of distress – she said she "slipped through the cracks".

She has made formal complaints to officials – "I believe I should be compensated", she said, given she had to pay for the surgery out of her own pocket.

'She was given a box of tissues and left alone

Bjorn Reymer told the story of his wife's pregnancy under alert level 3.
His wife was told she needed a scan at hospital – but he wasn't allowed to be with her during the ultrasound.

Reymer said he had to wait in the hospital's car park while she had the scan.

Inside, his wife was told that her baby had no heartbeat – and she had to deal with the trauma by herself.

"She was given a box of tissues and left alone."

This was the couple's second miscarriage.

Reymer said he did not understand why he could be with his wife during such a traumatic time and he was not aware of some of the rules around compassionate visitations.

He said the medical staff were not wearing PPE as they did not deem his wife a Covid-19 risk.

As he was in her bubble, Reymer does not understand why he couldn't be in the room with her.

He did not blame the hospital staff but was critical of how confusing the system was.
He said he had heard from others who were in similar circumstances who had different experiences.

"The process could have been more transparent. I should have been allowed in at level 3."

But he said the follow-up from the Auckland hospital and the midwife was good and helped them to deal with the trauma.

The committee is today focusing on the health impacts of Covid-19, and will hear from experts in various parts of the health sector.

Health system 'must catch up'

Cancer Society medical director Chris Jackson earlier told the committee that the level 4 lockdown has resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in cancer diagnoses.

"The health system must now catch up… or lives will be lost."

But Jackson said if the post-lockdown health response was done right, diagnoses can "catch up" and there would be a lot fewer deaths.

He said a three-month delay in screening would result in 400 lives being lost.
"We owe it to them to make sure we make those diagnoses."

He said more funding was needed for the health sector to prevent this from happening.
"If we don't do… these scans, lives will be lost."

Jackson said one option would be to run a "super clinic" whereby a lot of people are tested at once.

But he warned against that, as many cancer diagnoses were quite complex.

Without more additional capacity, and more funding, Jackson said DHBs would have to prioritise different types of cancer screening.

That is not ideal, he said, as it would mean some people would miss out.

He also called on the private sector to step up after the lockdown to help with the influx of cancer screenings.

But by and large, Jackson said the lockdown has kept people with cancer safe.

However, he said there have been some issues, such as some people in hospital not being able to have support people present.

Pharmac has abandoned plans to fund a lung cancer drug, due to global supply issues, Jackson said.

This was a concern.

Hospice NZ facing $20m loss in revenue

Hospice New Zealand chief executive Mary Shumacher said that her organisation faced a $20 million loss in revenue as a result of the lockdown.

She said half of the organisation's revenue came from the Government.

The rest, some $80m, is raised through donations and through their second-hand Hospice shops – last year, $49m was raised through those.

Although the wage subsidy has helped, Hospice NZ is facing significant financial difficulties – Shumacher estimates the loss in revenue, as a result of the lockdown, will be almost $20m.

"This is a real issue for us moving forward."

But she said her organisation was prepared for the pandemic.

Despite this, she said it has still been tough for staff and the people they care for during the lockdown.

These include limitations of visiting and lack of funerals and tangi.

She said that going into level 2, bereavement support is going to be "essential".

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website