Government money for Covid modelling has flowed overwhelmingly to one group

The Government has now spent or contracted to spend more than $6 million for Covid-19 modelling from a single group: the University of Auckland’s Te Punaha Matatini (TPM).

The figure appears to eclipse spending for all other government Covid-19 modelling work, and some details of that work suggests a diminishing contest of ideas is informing weighty policy decisions, including when to ease border and lockdown restrictions in light of vaccination levels.

Last month, the Government released TPM modelling (without peer review) that highlighted an “opening up scenario” of close to 7000 deaths a year from Covid-19, even with an 80 per cent vaccination rate for the population over the age of 5.

TPM’s work has been led by founding director Shaun Hendy, now a Principal Investigator. And Hendy himself was beamed into Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s 1pm press conference to dramatise the information.

In an interview, Hendy defended the work as, “informed by New Zealand’s particular situation”. But Rodney Jones, principal at Wigram Capital, who has also provided modelling work to the Government, but who was not asked to review this piece of TPM work, said the exercise “misrepresented risk” and he described it as fearmongering.

Wigram’s primary government contract for Covid-19 modelling is with the Treasury. The department confirmed the firm’s 12-month contract is worth $30,000 (excluding GST) and it runs to March 19, 2022.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) recently signed a contract worth $2m with the University of Auckland for 10 months of TPM work. The agreement runs to June 30, 2022.

Prior to that TPM was awarded, in two phases, a grant of $4.095m from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Covid-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund. The grant ran from July 1, 2020 through August 31, 2021; the funding decision was made by Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation.

TPM’s base funding through the Government’s Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) was also doubled this year through to the end of 2028, from $2.1m per annum to $4m.

A DPMC spokesperson said the contribution of TPM has been, “valuable for informing both Covid-19 strategy and outbreak management, and there is further work underway over the coming months. Deliverables include modelling on the implications of border policies and controls, health interventions, testing and contact tracing strategies, along with real-time outbreak scenarios and vaccination strategies”.

But the funding focus on TPM suggests the Government is relying very heavily on a single group of experts brought together through one institution (TPM is a research centre housed within the University of Auckland and it brings together researchers from other academic institutions).

A DPMC spokesperson said the Government has also “engaged with researchers from the Institute for Environmental Science and Research [ESR] and academic partners.”

A $533,224 grant was awarded by the Health Research Council last year for a study of infectious disease spread led by professor Colin Simpson, of Victoria University of Wellington. It included collaboration with Dr Mehnaz Adnan from crown research institute ESR.

But more analogous to ongoing TPM work is the contribution of Jones and Wigram, though the nature of the modelling work provided by TPM and Wigram is clearly very different. TPM’s work is centred on a large, complex model, and tries to understand Covid-19 within New Zealand’s specific circumstances. In an interview, Hendy said it is a labour-intensive exercise, and the current $2m contract covers the work of 13 full-time equivalent positions (FTEs). The cost of the group’s use of the government’s supercomputing facility housed within NIWA is borne through other funding.

Hendy also noted that he was contributing half his time to the current DPMC contract, and the other half was now spent at Toha, a fintech he co-founded in 2019.

The DPMC spokesperson declined to release the procurement rules followed in awarding the TPM contract, she suggested the question be put under the provisions of the Official Information Act. Hendy, however, confirmed the contract was not part of a competitive process.

Wigram’s service uses an “off the shelf” model and examines Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia-Pacific countries, including Australia. “The approach is to analyse lots of different outbreaks rather than creating a model for New Zealand. When we have a New Zealand outbreak we can apply that expertise,” Jones said.

Jones said that in 2020, the work he provided to the Government (pro bono) involved a greater contest of ideas.

“We have given presentations where we’ve reviewed pieces of work and also where they’ve [TPM] have offered comments on our approach, two very different approaches but there have been times where we’ve given critiques.” Jones said the last time that happened was in December last year.

He said he is concerned now that New Zealand’s debate around opening up and reconnecting with the world has been formed around TPM’s more structural models, with insufficient regard for the experience of other countries.

William Bowtell is an adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute a strategic health policy consultant.

He was unable to speak about the New Zealand situation particularly, but in such circumstances as the Covid-19 pandemic, he said a variety of modelling sources was desirable.

“It makes sense to commission a range of institutions that might have different strengths and therefore you’ll get three responses to the set of assumptions perhaps and what will happen, but then you can test them and debate them and they’re transparent and open and you come to a better outcome in public policy,” he said.

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