A coronavirus outbreak plan for the contact tracing system is still being written up, three weeks after a critical audit.
As New Zealand waits to learn whether Covid-19 restrictions will ease next week, the Government says the previously inadequate public health system is now ‘well placed” to manage outbreaks of the virus.
But much of the improvements recommended by an audit of the system remains incomplete — including creating a plan for an outbreak of the virus.
Contact tracing, which has health officials rapidly track down people who have come into contact with someone who tests positive for the virus, three weeks ago received a $55 million funding boost.
Health Minister David Clark on Saturday put out a press release which said a second review of the system showed efforts to bolster the system were “progressing well”.
The Ministry of Health in April released an audit of the system written by infectious disease expert Dr Ayesha Verrall which made numerous urgent recommendations to improve the system’s capability.
Verrall, in a letter to the ministry made public by Clark on Friday, said she was “pleased” to see the ministry was increasing the capacity of the regional public health units (PHUs), which are tasked with investigating new Covid-19 cases.
“The draft [outbreak] preparedness plan is clear, flexible and PHU centred,” she said.
She said the regional PHUs needed to be provided the software used by a recently created national contact centre for contact tracing. The software allows all health officials to keep track of efforts to reach the contacts of a Covid-19 case.
The ministry’s director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, in a letter in response said having the PHUs use the tracing software needed to be “carefully managed”, and so far PHUs had “read only access” — meaning they could see, but not add to the database.
Clark said a Government-developed contact tracing phone app, that would speed up tracing, was now “well developed and expected to be released for voluntary registration very soon”.
Details on what this phone app may look like have been scant. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week confirmed the Government continued to look at a wide range of options – including apps which used Bluetooth signals to record when two phones come into proximity – but would not say when a contact tracing app might be released.
Sir Brian Roche, tasked last week with providing oversight of improvements by the Government, said “good progress has been made to date and we will seek to strengthen whatever is required”.
The contact tracing system has been criticised as failing to adequately manage an influx of Covid-19 cases, as returning New Zealanders returning to the country from virus hotspots abroad helped the virus spread locally.
Stuff on Friday reported that New Zealand remained one day too slow for contact tracing on a critical goal: being able to test and isolate a person with Covid-19 and 80 per cent of their contacts within four days.
The system was ill-prepared for high numbers of daily cases. Cabinet papers made public by the Government on Friday afternoon showed that, as New Zealand counted 12 active cases on March 17, the system could only handle 10 active cases.
As of April 23, as New Zealand exited strict lockdown measures, the system could manage 185 new cases a day.
Verrall recommended that regional PHUs have a surge capacity of investigating 1000 new Covid-19 cases a day, an ambitious target Bloomfield has suggested should be set at between 300 and 500 cases a day.
It appears the capacity to manage new daily cases hasn’t improved in the three weeks since, though there have not been high Covid-19 case numbers requiring greater capacity.
Clark on Saturday said the system could handle 185 new cases a day, which was “up from about 50 cases a day seven weeks ago”, meaning the capacity had tripled.
“On top of that the [national call centre], which didn’t even exist eight weeks ago, has more than 200 staff who can make up to 10,000 close contact calls a day.”
Epidemiologists, or experts in infectious disease, have said the poorly equipped contact tracing system was likely the reason New Zealand’s lockdown was extended — a suggestion Ardern has pushed back on.