SPEECH: Our approach to COVID-19 and the vaccine roll-out

Delegates, it is good to be with you today. Hawke’s Bay holds a special place in my heart. It is warmer than Wellington. It’s where Jenna and I got married. And the wine is fantastic.

Delegates, it is good to be with you today. Hawke’s Bay holds a special place in my heart. It is warmer than Wellington. It’s where Jenna and I got married. And the wine is fantastic.

Can I acknowledge our Party Leader Hon Judith Collins.

This week has been a bruising week at Parliament. But I want to tell you a little story that I think demonstrates the sort of woman Judith Collins is.

After Michael Woodhouse and I had finished our debate with Trevor Mallard on Tuesday night, we retired to the corridor outside the debating chamber, with some colleagues.

Nobody could quite believe what had just happened.

Then Judith came bounding down the corridor. She’d come down from her office especially where she’d been watching the debate.

She said, I’m so proud of you to both of us. I had to come down and say that. You both did an amazing job.

And then she said come on, let’s go talk to the media together. And we followed her out to the black and white tiles to talk to the media, where she said exactly what she’d said to us to the media.

That meant an awful lot to Michael and me.

She didn’t have to do it. But she did, because she’s a good person, and a great Leader.

Thank you Judith.


Delegates, they say Opposition Leader is the hardest job in politics. Judith would probably agree with that.

I reckon Opposition COVID-19 Response Spokesperson is up there too, to be honest.

You should see my inbox.

For every email I get from people saying “you need to get stuck into Labour, National is too passive”, I get another email saying we are too negative, too critical, too oppositional.

Sometimes it feels like it’s impossible to win.

So here’s my approach to the COVID-19 portfolio.

First, I think we should acknowledge that the government has generally done a pretty good job – so far. And let’s face it – at the election the public generally said the same thing. Don’t worry, I’m not handing back my National membership card, but sometimes in politics we don’t give credit where it is due and I suspect the voters would like it more if we did.

Second, while the government has done well, it can be better, and it’s our job to make them better. I reject utterly the idea that we should give the PM a pat on the back and say “well done” and just leave the government to it.

I am a firm believer in the idea that good opposition makes for good government and better public policy, and ultimately isn’t that why we’re all here?

It’s our job to criticise the fact that the government has no idea how many people are missing COVID-19 tests at the border, eight months after they were made mandatory.

If I hadn’t asked the question in the select committee to the MIQ officials about how long the Grand Millennium security guard had gone between COVID-19 tests, would we have ever found out that he went five months without being tested?

It’s our job to criticise the mixing and mingling inside MIQ hotels, so that people from India were, until a couple of weeks ago, in the same facilities as people from Australia – even getting on buses and exercising together.

It’s our job to criticise the slowness in introducing the Australian bubble, which happened months after experts said it would be safe, while Ministers go around and say that the tourism industry, which is on its knees, is “cocky”.

Third, the flipside of being critical is the responsibility to put forward ideas. I’m proud of the constructive and sensible ideas we’ve put forward from Opposition.

We started this work last year under Gerry Brownlee and Shane Reti.

During the election we said it doesn’t make sense that you can get on a plane and come to New Zealand with COVID - so why don’t we make people get a test like other countries do, and if you test positive, you can’t come. Well the government said that was a dumb idea back then, but it’s now government policy – and it’s making a difference.

Over summer the experts warned about the new variants of COVID and how worried they were about it turning up in New Zealand. So we said, how about separate hotels for people from high risk countries, so they don’t mix with people from lower risk countries. That seems sensible, and will minimise the risk of COVID spreading into the community. The government said no and that it was too difficult – but again, it’s now government policy.

In March we said the time had finally come for the Aussie Bubble and launched a petition for people to show support for the concept. Kiwis had been able to go to Australia since October last year – but our government wouldn’t return the favour.

I have no doubt the Aussie Bubble is here more quickly because of our work. Officials had had twelve rounds of talks with the Aussies and they were going nowhere because of our intransigence. Public pressure, led by us, made the difference.

So those are just three examples of the sort of change good, sensible, well-argued opposition can make.

We have other ideas

Purpose-built MIQ

We still think purpose built quarantine facilities makes sense. Using hotels in downtown Auckland was a good stop gap measure last year. But hotels simply aren’t built for quarantine and isolation. As we learn more about COVID-19, particularly the importance of aerosol transmission and ventilation, that is becoming even more obvious. We are spending millions – $5 million so far and counting – retrofitting these hotels, when they’re just inherently not fit for purpose, and never will be.

Our view is we should be building purpose built facilities like other jurisdictions are. The experts agree with us and they’ve even had proposals sent to them from the private sector, but the government says it’s too hard. Well, they said that about pre-departure testing and separating high risk arrivals too. So let’s see.

Self-isolation payments

We think the government needs to be more generous when it comes to supporting people when they’re told to self-isolate. Earlier this year we announced a policy of the government paying people’s wages when people are ordered to self-isolate. It’s pretty sensible – if the government is saying to you “stay home” and we don’t want you at work – they should pay. Every person who goes to work when they shouldn’t puts us at risk of another lockdown and far greater economic and social cost.

Our idea was widely welcomed by everyone – unions, business, health experts, even the Green Party (which got me a bit worried) – but the government won’t act.

Saliva testing

We’ve put forward the view that saliva testing should be much more common at the border. Most people know now about the nasopharyngeal PCR swab test (I call it the up the nose test) which the Ministry of Health says is the gold standard test for COVID-19. But there’s an alternative form of PCR testing which uses saliva instead. Now there’s a bit of disagreement about whether it is quite as accurate as the up the nose test (some say yes and some say no) but it is undoubtedly easier to administer.

Do you remember the Sir Brian Roche/Heather Simpson report? This was the one the government commissioned in response to the August lockdown last year. They got it in September and it was damning. So they sat on it – until after Parliament had risen for the year, then they slipped it out on a late Friday afternoon.

Well, the Roche/Simpson report said ‘all efforts should be made to introduce saliva testing as soon as possible as part of the range of testing methods being conducted’.

That was in September.

Well, I revealed yesterday that just 339 saliva tests have been carried out at the border.

Remember 20,000 people work at the border. Just 339 tests.

It’s pathetic.

It is simply a no brainer to have frequent saliva testing at the border. It would pick COVID up much more quickly.

We should also be making much more use of rapid antigen testing.

These are nasal swab tests that provide results in just 15 minutes. They’re less accurate than the traditional PCR tests but the flip side is they allow us to test large numbers of people very quickly. For example remember during the February Valentine’s Day Cluster how long it took to test all the students at Papatoetoe High School?

We could have done nearly the entire school in one morning, and then used the standard up the nose PCR test as a second, more accurate confirmation test. That would have greatly improved the speed of response to that cluster and the lockdown.

We could also use them for people from high-risk countries arriving into New Zealand. At the moment we give people in MIQ a Day 0 or Day 1 test; which means people can be here nearly 48 hours before they’re actually tested. Why not test everyone getting off the plane with a rapid antigen test? If you’re positive, it’s off to quarantine you go until you get a standard PCR test. If not, you’re off to MIQ and then you get the standard Day 0/Day 1 test.

These tests can be bought from a chemist in the US for about $15 and they would be an added layer of protection.

The government says they’re not as accurate, which is true, but misses the point. But guess what? They’re reliable enough that we accept them as a pre-departure test for arrival into New Zealand!

National will keep putting forward sensible, constructive ideas like saliva testing, antigen testing, purpose built quarantine, and COVID leave payments.

I want to finish by talking about the vaccination roll-out.

I’ll be honest, I’m worried.

There are few things more important for New Zealand’s future than the efficient and effective roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine.

We were told by Chris Hipkins last year that New Zealand was at the “front of the queue” for vaccines.

Some of you will have been watching the United Kingdom’s very successful vaccine roll-out.

Here’s how the UK has done.

They’re up to 75.46 vaccine doses per 100 people.

Here’s the United States.

75.34 doses per 100 people.

Australia’s roll-out has been called a shambles. The Morrison government is under real political pressure over it.

Here’s Australia. Just about 10 doses per 100 people.

And here’s New Zealand. 6.32 poses per 100 people.

So if they’re a shambles, you might very well ask, what are we?

Well, as of now, we are ranked 116th in the world in terms of vaccine doses administered per capita.

We are being beaten by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nauru and Nepal.

We are the second slowest in the OECD.

In February this year we finally started vaccinating frontline border workers. We were told it would take 2-3 weeks. It’s taken 2-3 months.

The government is actually deliberately slowing the roll-out down. I released a leaked Ministry of Health document a couple of weeks ago. It showed we were meant to have done nearly 400,000 doses at the time, but had done just 90,000.

The government’s response was to say that they’re worried about going too quickly – we might run out of vaccines!

We’re now in May, and we’re meant to be onto group 3 in the roll-out – this is people who are at risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. There are 1.7 million people in this group.

The Ministry of Health has quietly updated their website to say that this roll-out will actually start in “late May”.

So in other words they’ve surreptitiously changed the start-date because they know it’s a shambles out there on the frontline.

On Friday night Newshub reported a woman faced a five hour wait for her vaccine jab. One of the people who turned up and then left, said “I think we're making a bit of a mess with the vaccines. I don't think the left-hand knows what the right-hand is doing at the moment”, which seems pretty bang-on to me.

I could go on.

  • The government won’t set targets for the roll-out. Almost every Western country has set a target for how many people they want to do and by when. This government hates targets because they never meet them, so we don’t have any. No targets means no accountability.

  • The IT systems aren’t ready. We’re meant to have a nationwide booking system up and running. It’s still “under development”. That’s why Canterbury DHB went off and did their own thing the other day, deploying a system so badly designed anyone with a modicum of IT knowledge could log in and pretend to be a vaccinator, changing patients’ vaccine statuses, accessing their health records, and more.

  • The role of GPs and pharmacies is still unclear. GPs are meant to be being used from July, just two months away, but no information has been provided to them. It’s a mess.

So, does this all matter? The government’s argument is that we are down the bottom of the world and we are COVID-19 free. We’ve done such a good job. We can afford to wait; and let other countries go first, because they need the vaccines more.

Here’s what I say.

We can’t get complacent. We did well in 2020 but that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels in 2021.

The UK and US have done over 50 percent of their populations already.

We’ve had such an incredible opportunity to build on our great response last year, but at the moment we are wasting it.

As the world vaccinates it will increasingly open up.

We’re a country that relies on trade, on investment, on tourism, on our international connections.

We cannot afford to be cut off from the rest of the world because our vaccination programme was too slow.

At the moment, that’s the risk we run.

So, I will keep pushing the government on the vaccine roll-out, the border, MIQ, and more.

I owe it to you, our members.

I also owe it to New Zealanders.

Thank you for your support.