Is the Ashley Bloomfield show as transparent as Kiwis think?

by Michael Morrah

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The Health Ministry must be more transparent with the information it's giving to the public.

Like all journalists in New Zealand right now, I've been covering stories day after day, all of which relate to our current coronavirus crisis.

It's the longest-running, bulletin dominating story I've ever known and is impacting every single Kiwi, young and old.

Given the ongoing significance of this epidemic, we as journalists need swift, precise information. We need this to inform the public.

However, getting clear, timely answers to questions has frequently been an arduous and deeply frustrating.

Early in this crisis, I put a simple question to the Health Ministry’s media team about Personal Protective Equipment. It took FOUR days to get a response, and when I did, the information provided was vague, unhelpful, and did not answer my question.

This is simply not good enough.

What’s happening now is that journalists are being referred to Dr Ashley Bloomfield's daily 1pm press briefings in order to get the answers we need.

This is how these briefings work.

The room is filled with journalists from every media television, radio and print organisation in the country. Each of those journalists in the room have their own questions, plus questions from other colleagues in their organisation (who are chasing different angles) who are not based in Wellington and cannot attend the briefings in person.

The atmosphere is often tense, as journalists try to get their questions out before the officials call time, and it's all over.

In a normal interview setting, journalists are able to ask a question and then ask a follow up question. This is important, as it helps provide context. It also means journalists can challenge a position or comment. I fully understand these are not normal circumstances, but the information being provided (if you're lucky enough to get a response) has been piecemeal at best.

Our Newshub political team, led by the indomitable Tova O’Brien, are doing a phenomenal job challenging officials, and extracting key facts, while fielding multiple text messages and emails from our team of journalists in other parts of the country.

Our job is not to just repeat what is being said at media briefings. But to listen, analyse and test the veracity of what is being said. If we have evidence which conflicts with the Government’s version of events, we must have the ability to test this. This is our responsibility as a conduit for the public.

There also appears to be a massive disconnect with what the public is being told, and what is actually happening on the ground.

The call for our country's most vulnerable to get flu jabs is a good example.

On March 18, the Health Minister announced a major flu vaccination campaign to ensure hospital beds are available for a possible influx of COVID-19 patients.

The Ministry said it had vast stocks of the vaccine - 1.8 million doses to be exact. They would be available to those 65 and over immediately.

Over the coming days, it became apparent that this campaign simply wasn't working. Why? Because GP clinics did not have enough of the vaccines, and their access to the vaccine had been restricted to just 60 doses per order.

Healthcare Logistics, the group that distributes the flu vaccine, emailed doctors to say their large orders had been cancelled because a company that supplies a brand of the vaccine has "run out of stock."

When we raised this issue with the Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfiled, he said we were moving "from a peacetime distribution to a wartime distribution" and the Ministry was working on the issue.

The concern I have, however, is that even as I write this today, it's clear just how far we really are from implementing a "wartime distribution".

I am still getting emails from our country's elderly asking me why they can't get a flu shot. Imagine the pressure our country's doctors are under to explain this to their patients.

This is a massive failure due to inadequate planning and contradictory communication.

If the Government is really serious about it’s so-called “wartime distribution”, they need to start acting like it. Commandeer the courier trucks if needed and get the vaccines to where they're needed.

The same goes for swabs. Despite constant assurances that we have thousands, I am speaking to doctors on a daily basis who say they're struggling to get enough (5 at a time), or have been told by labs their practice cannot get any as there is not enough.

Dr Bloomfiled stated on Tuesday we had 50,000 nasal swabs in the country. That's great, but they are not getting to those who need them. Why not? How can you expect our frontline health heroes to do their jobs effectively if they don't have the swabs or PPE to do it. And if we do have tens of thousands of nasal swabs, why am I reading two emails from two different Auckland health groups, who represent hundreds of doctors, which tell their members that they need to move to using throat swabs because of supply issues with the nasal variety.

I think Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has done a solid job of steadying the ship through these uncharted times. But we need transparent, timely information. Not PR spin. This is important not only for journalists, but for all New Zealanders.

This article was first published by Newshub and reprinted with permission. Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Michael Morrah is an investigative journalist with Newshub, specialising in environmental, humanitarian, and social issues.

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