Covid-19: Epidemiologist calls for stand alone public health agency

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A public health expert says it is a pity the government took three months to release a report criticising its Covid-19 testing regime.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

Professor Michael Baker wants to see a stand alone public health agency in New Zealand. Photo: University of Otago, Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

The report was completed in September, but was made public yesterday.

It says there are problems with communication, accountability, and clarity in the testing systems.

Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at Otago University, said it is to the credit of the government that it adopted a courageous elimination strategy, and commissioned the report.

He said there have been improvements made since the report.

But he said the government should have been more open and published the critical report sooner.

“One of the other really positive things about this report is the fact it’s been done and that New Zealand is evaluating its response but it is a pity it took three months before this report was released.

“One of the defining features of the New Zealand response so far has been a high degree of transparency and that often means doing these reports and then making them public.”

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Baker said a dedicated public health agency, as recommended by the report, is desperately needed.

He said part of New Zealand’s Covid response is still directed and managed by the Ministry of Health and part by the All of Government Group with additional advice coming in from other channels such as the review group.

“My concern is why invest in two separate structures when I think it’s time to have one solid structure for New Zealand that will not only manage the risk of the pandemic but also will deal with all the other things on the horizon.”

He said a strong science-based strategy and adopting the elimination approach is what has distinguished New Zealand.

“I think the elimination strategy over time, while it was considered quite radical back in March, now is looking globally like the optimal approach.”

Baker said New Zealand has done an amazing job of dealing with Covid-19 but there are still problems.

“You have to keep refining the strategy, you have to keep looking at the epidemiology and the laboratory science, virology, everything else and then you have to keep making sure it’s being delivered in the way you think it is.”

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He said unfortunately the report missed the most important action in terms of keeping New Zealand safe which is to shift the focus for testing and control to the source countries.

“Every time we get a case coming into our MIQ facilities that increases the risk of an outbreak and really we should be shifting a lot more focus on those source countries where the pandemic is just getting more intense.”

That would mean brief periods of testing and quarantine in the source countries, he said.

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