ANALYSIS: By Selwyn Manning, editor of EveningReport.nz
It all boils down to this: The timeline of latest revelations suggests National Party MPs placed their “want to GET their opponents” – the Ardern government – ahead of concerns that covid-19 was potentially un-contained and again infecting New Zealanders.
Is this a step too far for the Todd Muller-led party?
We are debating the issue where two women, who had recently arrived from the United Kingdom and were in isolation, were released on compassionate grounds to travel freely between Auckland and Wellington to visit a dying parent – this while infected with the covid-19 virus.
In the latest revelations to Parliament yesterday (the government revealed) National Party MP Chris Bishop had lobbied for the two women asking officials to “expeditiously” consider releasing the women from quarantine so they could visit their dying parent.
While Bishop was just doing his job, it set in train a failure by New Zealand officials to follow government instructions to keep those who have recently crossed our borders isolated and quarantined.
That is, until international travellers have proven to be free of covid-19.
Earlier this week, National MP Michael Woodhouse delivered a bombshell in Parliament. He revealed that two women – who had recently arrived in New Zealand, who had travelled from the United Kingdom to New Zealand via Doha (in Qatar) and Australia – had been released early from quarantine prior to their Covid-19 status being determined.
Woodhouse revealed, citing a “reliable but confidential source” that the two women had now presented as covid-19 positive, that they had borrowed a car from a friend, had got lost on the Auckland Motorway, were in physical contact with that friend, and had driven from Auckland to Wellington.
As Radio New Zealand reported, Woodhouse said:
“They called on acquaintances who they were in close contact with and that was rewarded with even more close contact – a kiss and a cuddle.” The source also told him the women had borrowed the car, raising the question of whether there was further undisclosed contact.
Once in Wellington, they had visited their dying parent before tests showed they were carrying the deadly virus. It was not clear how many New Zealanders they had actually come into contact with – some reports suggested up to 320 people had potentially been infected with the covid-19 virus.
Woodhouse’s claims rocked the government. Reeling and on the back-foot, ministers, including the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, scrambled to gather information. Later that afternoon, it was confirmed that Woodhouse was correct.
Health officials were summoned. Breaches of the government’s strict controls were discovered.
The Prime Minister, clearly appalled and fed up with having earlier received official assurances that the controls were being followed, was later informed that that was not the case.
Her response? She ordered the military to replace public servants, that Air Commodore Digby Webb would oversee and manage the quarantine and isolation control requirements.
Social media zealots
Throughout Wednesday, National MPs, supporters, some commentators, and a tribe of social media zealots called for the resignation of the Health Minister, David Clark. The Prime Minister refused and stood by her minister stating he was a part of efforts to fix this issue, and not a part of the problem.
But, what Woodhouse did not reveal, was that one of his fellow National Party MPs, Chris Bishop, had lobbied to have the two women released early so they could drive from Auckland to Wellington.
Here’s the crucial timeline as Bishop has now confirmed:
To RadioNZ’s Checkpoint he said:
On Friday (June 12) a “mutual friend” sent him a Twitter message describing to him the plight of the two women who had arrived in NZ to see their dying parent but who were in secure quarantine while their parent’s condition was deteriorating.
“I said [to the mutual friend] they should send me an email.”
“I was contacted on Friday night by the two women via email, when I saw the email on Saturday afternoon I forwarded it to the email address provided to MPs for that purpose, and asked the officials to look at it ‘expeditiously’, I think was the language used.”
Afterwards, Bishop said he had emailed the women back to let them know he had passed on their request, and their correspondence ended after that with the pair thanking him.
Bishop added: “I did what MPs are … obliged to do and dozens of MPs from around the Parliament will have done over the last three months or so, I’ve dealt with probably hundreds of inquiries and forwarded them on to the appropriate address, everything from essential businesses to immigration matters through to this case.”
Now, that may have been the case. MPs are often compelled to act on the interests of constituents and citizens. And, it should be said, Chris Bishop is a hard-working and well-respected member of Parliament.
Snakes and mirrors
But this is where the snakes and mirrors creeps in.
Every Tuesday morning, when Parliament sits, National MPs hold a caucus meeting where, in private, they discuss, among other things, party issues and organise what information they will raise in Parliament later that day.
It is reasonable to realise, on the morning of Tuesday, June 16, while at caucus, National’s MPs would have discussed the bombshell. At caucus they would have decided who among them would deliver the blow, a strategy would have been decided upon on how the politics of it all would be handled.
And here, it is likely, where National decided to sit on the information until it set this political dynamite alight in the debating chamber later that afternoon.
As the vital hours passed, National placed political interests ahead of the public interest.
National’s MPs knew, as the good New Zealand public knows, that Covid-19 is the most deadly virus to have swept the world in our lifetimes. The pandemic is raging offshore as you read this.
It appears, National MPs, and its leadership, willingly withheld information it had acquired from its “reliable but confidential source” from health officials and the Government.
Hundreds at risk
As they stated later that day, hundreds could have caught covid-19 in the days the two women were among our communities. And as Radio New Zealand’s political editor Jane Patterson wrote: “The next few days will be crucial. Testing and contact tracing that will be frantically happening should give us a better idea of whether this is limited to just the two women, or if the failures at the border are going to have more wide-reaching consequences.”
Time, when it comes to covid-19, is crucial.
Morally, on being informed of the two women having tested as covid-19 positive, National should have immediately informed the Prime Minister’s office of the issue, called a press conference where it cited their informant, exposing the government’s officials for having placed New Zealanders at further risk, and claimed the political highground.
Instead, it sat quiet, while the hours ticked away, while New Zealanders who may have been in contact with the infected women went about their daily tasks, contacting others, placing more people at risk.
If covid-19 gets away on us again, New Zealand could return to lockdown. That would cause huge strain on an already strained economy and could see more New Zealanders die.
National’s decision is, in my opinion, beyond dirty politics. It exposes a party to being prepared to put New Zealander’s lives at risk just so it can deliver a political hit job.
In defence of his own actions, on Thursday MP Chris Bishop said: “This was a desperate attempt by the government to distract away from their incompetent management at the border and I think it’s frankly pretty disgraceful that an MP doing their job is being dragged into this.”
Bishop, in my view, on the evidence available so far, has little to apologise for. He was doing his job.
But as for National’s leadership team, rather than the Minister of Health resigning, decency would insist they should front-up to explain why they put Kiwis lives at risk by holding on to that crucial information.
On the information at hand, it is they, rather than the Minister of Health David Clark, who should resign.
But we all know – despite this revelation – they will not.
Selwyn Manning is editor and publisher of EveningReport.nz, a partner publication of Evening Report, and is a research associate of the Pacific Media Centre.