Thursday, 4 February 2021

 

The question of whether Medsafe would approve the Pfizer Covid19 vaccine was finally resolved this week. Up until then, the constant and near fever-pitch “will they, won’t they” speculation had been one of the biggest “beat-ups” of recent times. 

There was never any doubt that Medsafe would approve the vaccine – for a couple of reasons. First, the idea that New Zealand regulators would find evidence against approving the vaccine that no other regulators anywhere in the world had found was simply preposterous. And, second, once Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Agency (TGA) approved the vaccine, as had happened a couple of weeks ago, it was really game-over as far as any potentially different decision in New Zealand was concerned. This is because since the Clark government’s failed attempt in the early 2000s to merge Medsafe with the TGA the standard practice on both sides of the Tasman has been to regard approval of a new medicine in either Australia or New Zealand as approval in both countries, to save duplication of effort and resources. 

New Zealand Ministers and officials should have known this full well, which makes their public statements that notwithstanding the worldwide approvals, followed by the TGA’s decision, it would be unwise to prejudge what Medsafe might conclude, look utterly hollow and ludicrous. 

But this needs to be seen in a wider context. Having won the election so decisively last year because of public approval of its handling of the pandemic crisis, the government knows only too well the political benefits to be derived from continuing its close focus on Covid19 related issues. Given the inevitability of Medsafe’s approval of the vaccine, there was absolutely no justifcation for the Prime Minister’s special announcement that Medsafe had reached a favourable decision, let alone the separate detailed statement from the Director-General of Health of how the decision had been arrived at. None of it was news – it would have been more newsworthy had Medsafe not approved the vaccine – but it was just another occasion where the government could play the Covid19 card to good effect. By drawing out an announcement that anyone with any knowledge of these issues knew was always going to be an approval of the vaccine, the government was able to keep the focus on itself and then look like the good guys when it was able to announce as some dramatic breakthrough the only decision its independent regulator could have made, the same one which virtually every other regulator in the world had already made. 

Similarly, with the resumption of the daily 1:00 pm press conferences. There has been nothing said in any of those over the last couple of weeks that could not have been covered just as adequately in a departmental press release. But a factual press release without the accompanying spin would obscure the point that the government really is in full control of the situation. The press conferences are less an exercise in conveying information, than one of showing who is in control. 

One need only look at the continuing number of cases being identified at the border; the mounting questions about how secure and safe the managed isolation and quarantine system is; the growing problems surrounding the handling of cases of New Zealanders either with terminal conditions themselves, or within their families, desperate to come home; and now, the questions about when vaccines will actually be made available to New Zealand, to know that there is much about the ongoing Covid19 situation the government has no control over. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the government will want to make as much as it can out of those aspects that it does control. Like it or not, it is simply smart politics. 

Meanwhile, as the housing crisis escalates; the inbound tourism sector says it is weeks away from total collapse; and more and more Main Street businesses (and even Wellington’s last major department store) have either shut up shop for good or have announced they are about to do so; the government is stoically silent on any strategies or plans to address these issues which affect the livelihoods of many of its citizens. 

But, true to form, it does know the value of a good diversionary tactic, so its major announcement this week was of a consultation process on the content of the forthcoming New Zealand history syllabus in schools. Whatever one’s view, this is likely to be a controversial public debate, occupying a lot of media space, that might otherwise have been dedicated to other issues. Similarly, too with the follow-up announcement about making it easier for local authorities to establish Maori wards, topped off by the Prime Minister’s announcement of the inaugural Matariki Day public holiday on June 24 2022. Again, the politics of diversion and deflection at their best. This is not at all to say that these issues are unimportant – they are – and we need to show calm reflection and maturity as a nation as we debate them. 

The government will say the timing of all these announcements is based around the forthcoming Waitangi weekend, and there is a convenient truth to that. But it is hard to escape the feeling that they have rolled out now to deflect public attention away from the hardening questions about Covid19. Why, for example, is the border control situation such a mess? Why the uncertainty about when Covid19 vaccines will arrive in New Zealand, let alone when New Zealanders will be vaccinated, given the original assurance we were at the head of the queue? In view of the high level of organisation there has been in other countries to ensure efficient application of the vaccine, is there a similar plan for New Zealand and who is developing it? These questions are regularly glossed over at the daily press conference, but no detailed information is ever provided. 

For most New Zealanders, who approves what vaccine and by what process is secondary to knowing when the vaccine will be available and when they will get it. They would like hard and fast answers to these questions, rather than just another dose of spin.

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