New Zealand urgently needs a new agency, independent of the Ministry of Health and able to make quick decisions, to help with the fight against Covid-19.
That's the belief of Brien Cree, Executive Chairman and founder of aged care provider Radius Care. His 22 facilities around the country have successfully kept the virus at bay but he is puzzled by the fact that new residents (in all New Zealand rest homes) are still not being tested for the virus – and by Ministry of Health slowness to implement what are seen as "no-brainer" measures to contain it.
"I think recent weeks have shown that the ministry are just kind of behind the 8-ball all the time," he says. "Things seem to move so very slowly – it has taken four months to convince the government that people should be wearing masks, for example.
"Even now, they are still not testing new admissions and making it difficult for our staff to get tested – it is taking five days. We are aged care homes with the country's most vulnerable people. You'd think that would have some sort of priority – it's really odd."
Aged care facilities were the site of most of New Zealand's 22 virus-related deaths. The virus has also cut a fatal path through rest homes in many countries like Sweden, Belgium, Spain, the UK and the US – where 40 per cent of Covid-19 deaths are linked to nursing homes.
Cree says he thinks the departmental make-up of the ministry is slowing the response to the virus, and acknowledges the recent appointment of Heather Simpson and former accountancy company boss Sir Brian Roche by the government to take control of the testing regime and support the ministry.
"But it seems to me government departments are not used to making quick decisions. They are not staffed with people who have experience in large businesses, for example – people who have to make decisions they stand or fall by. Their decision-making doesn't seem to be decision-making at all – it's more like a policy update by committee – and it seems to leave them two weeks behind all the time."
Compare the ministry's slow progress to that of New Zealand's Aged Care Association, he says, where there was "universal acceptance" from all aged care providers that the sector as a whole had to lock down.
The ministry disagreed but the country's rest homes locked down anyway (a decision soon to be reviewed) and Cree says the difference in decision-making was clear: "At the meeting of the Aged Care Association board, it was put to the members that we lock down over the whole country. Yes. Does anyone disagree? No. Bang. Done.
"But the ministry are still not testing new residents? I just don't understand it – no one can, particularly with the lack of testing of workers at the border being revealed. It's a no-brainer.
"I think what is needed is to speed up the decision-making process and, to do that, we need a new independent group of people who will call the shots over the response to Covid-19 and who are not dragged down by government procedure. We need a new agency full of people who have had experience of business and can be decisive and effective."
Cree says the difference between this lockdown and the last one is that his staff seem more stressed: "Everyone thought we [New Zealand] had done a great job and had beaten it but now it's come back. Some of the staff are more worried now – and the government could help that by testing new residents.
"These small things send a message to workers that they are looking after their interests and making sure they are okay."
Cree says one Radius staff member had a grand-daughter who lived with her who tested positive for the virus. The staffer was immediately stood down and tested – but the results (she was negative) took five days. The woman was stood down for two weeks in spite of the negative result.
"These things don't send a good message," says Cree. "Other aged care providers told the ACA board meeting that some of their workers, who live in or near Hamilton but who work in Auckland, were taking five hours to get through checkpoints and some had even been turned around because the police didn't think they were essential workers."
Cree is writing open letters to family of residents who are locked down and can't receive visitors. He says the feedback has been good, with people comforted by the flow of information and by messages that their loved ones were being looked after – even as some New Zealanders are beginning to espouse the merits of looking after the economy more than instituting more lockdowns.
He says some people – often younger – seemed to feel that aged care residents had had a "good innings" and that they weren't "a big deal".
"They think like that until it involves their parents," he says. "Then it's a big deal."