Covid 19 coronavirus: Opinion – Labour’s indefensible, cynical behaviour leaves us all poorer


Did you know returnees spend 14 days in MIQ after they arrive in New Zealand? Or that Covid-19 can be transmitted via air particles as well as droplets?

The Labour MPs on Parliament’s health committee apparently have such an insufficient grasp of such issues that they needed a 20-minute “idiot’s guide” presentation from the heads of Health and MBIE this week.

Such was the parade of inanities that Speaker Trevor Mallard penalised his own party the following day, giving National MP Chris Bishop four extra supplementary questions for Question Time – even though Mallard has no jurisdiction over select committees.

He does, however, have complete discretion over supplementary questions at Question Time. In punishing Labour, he said the committee wasn’t run “with the spirit of the last Standing Orders report and assurances that have been given”.

Those assurances were about the Opposition’s ability to question ministers and officials, and were the backbone behind the decision not to re-establish the Epidemic Response Committee.

The extra four questions were at least some solace for Bishop, who went through various stages of anguish throughout the presentation.

He tweeted in frustration as Ashley Bloomfield explained the testing regime for returnees.

He held his head in his hands during the “end-to-end customer journey” explanation for someone flying to New Zealand.

“We provide information via our website,” MIQ deputy chief executive Megan Main said about helping them before they get on the plane.

“We take them from the international airport to one of our 32 facilities in five cities … They do exactly 14 days, 370-odd hours with us.”

Bishop looked like he might spontaneously combust when, after the presentation was done, committee chair and Labour MP Liz Craig said: “That’s been really, really useful.”

She then invited the officials to provide a recap, which led to MBIE chief executive Carolyn Tremain enlightening the committee about how MBIE met with Health “regularly” to “exchange information and share experiences”.

When it was finally his turn, Bishop’s line of questioning was broken up by Labour’s Ginny Andersen asking about the benefits of giving vaccines to border workers first.

And when Bishop tried to resume his questioning, Craig declared that time was up, noting the committee had already agreed to the 20-minute presentation in the first place.

“I know that, but who do you think has the numbers on the committee?” an exasperated Bishop retorted.

Act leader David Seymour implored the committee to allow Bishop more questions, to which Anderson declared:”Give him one.”

After his question – about the slow pace of phasing out MIQ security contractors, eight months after it was signalled – Bishop moved a motion to extend the session.

“No,” said Andersen. “We’ve just had an hour.” Then Craig, seemingly taking instructions from Andersen, closed the session so a vote could be held behind closed doors.

The session wasn’t extended.

Government MPs using up committee time to give a minister or official an easy ride is nothing new.

But committees are also invaluable opportunities for any MP – not just the Opposition – to grill officials on key issues, and there is none more important than the Covid response.

Bishop’s first question elicited the big reveal that an infected Grand Millennium security guard – who should be tested fortnightly – had gone untested for five months, and that MBIE didn’t know how many MIQ workers were missing their regular tests.

Covid Minister Chris Hipkins eventually found out – about 60 MIQ workers.

But that has just led to more unanswered questions, and a growing sense that the Government’s testing system at the border is not up to scratch.

Why was the critical testing regime built on a system that relied on workers and employers telling the truth? (Government answer: there’s no rule book for Covid.)

What checks were being done to make sure private employers were keeping tabs on whether their workers were getting swabbed? (Some, maybe. We’re still looking into that.)

How many high-risk workers in the 15,000-strong wider border workforce – such as port engineers, one of whom tested positive in August – are also off the Government’s radar? Shouldn’t they also be on the border worker testing register?

Does the register even work as it should? Hipkins kinda thinks so. But the guard’s employer, First Security, said the register only threw up a red flag about the guard’s tests at the end of March, four months after the guard’s was last tested.

These are all questions the committee could grill officials on, which could – and here’s the point – pave the way for improving the Covid response, making it less likely that we might lose a loved one or be forced back into lockdown.

When Wednesday’s farce was done and dusted, Bishop unsurprisingly called for the Epidemic Response Committee to be re-established.

It was opposed by the Government, which said Parliament’s processes were back up and running and the Opposition had ample opportunities to hold the Government to account.

That would ring truer if Labour MPs on the committee dropped their cynical, indefensible tactics, which have left us all poorer as a result.

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