Since the covid-19 virus emerged in China almost two years ago, the New Zealand Government has created the impression that their decisions about how to react to the pandemic have been driven by “the science”.
There have been frequent references to public health academics at Otago University, particularly Professors Baker and Wilson; to the public health academics associated with the Skegg Committee, headed by Professor Skegg; and to Professors Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles at Te Punaha Matatini (which, for the benefit of those who speak no te reo Maori, is a Centre of Research Excellence at the University of Auckland established to “develop methods and tools for transforming complex data into knowledge for better decision-making”).
There have always been some serious commentators who were extremely dubious about the advice the Government was getting – or at least, about the decisions the Government reached having received that advice.
Dr John Gibson at Waikato University, for example, has persuasively argued that because life expectancy is to some extent a function of living standards as measured by GDP per capita, the serious lockdown imposed by the Government on the whole country on several occasions in 2020, and on Auckland and surrounding areas this year, almost certainly reduced life expectancy appreciably. He suggested that on reasonable assumptions “our politicians and health bureaucrats will have presided over a fall in life expectancy where there are two million fewer life years than would otherwise be expected. If this loss was fully concentrated on a select group, it is equivalent to 46,000 deaths…. Lockdowns are one of our greatest peacetime policy failures.”
In the last few days, a paper dated 22 October 2021 by Dr Martin Lally has been distributed to many interested observers and journalists. To date, I have seen no reference to it in the media at all. Whether that’s because the mainstream media have been bought by Government largesse, as the cynic in me suspects, or whether 21 pages plus references take too much time to digest, I don’t know.
But Dr Lally’s paper should be read by anybody trying to understand Government policy towards the pandemic. What it shows is that those three groups of scientific advisers were all over the place, sometimes favouring a policy of eliminating the virus and at other times favouring a policy of mitigation; sometimes favouring a careful Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) and sometimes not; sometimes putting a relatively conventional value on a “Quality Adjusted Life Year” (QALY) saved by any given policy, and at other times using a wildly extravagant value.
His principal conclusions were these:
Firstly, the views of Baker and Wilson markedly fluctuated: they favoured lockdown and were against ex-ante CBA on 19 March 2020, then favoured CBA along with urging the government to complete their CBA on 23 March, then favoured mitigation after completing their own CBA on 17 June 2020, and then reverted to favouring elimination without any CBA on 17 July 2020.
Secondly, their QALY values varied from GDP per capita (currently about $60,000) to $370,000, with the latter adopted in the only analysis they performed that concluded in favour of mitigation.
Thirdly in all of their numerous papers, only one of them constituted a CBA of elimination versus mitigation (for both New Zealand and Australia), and it concluded that mitigation was better [than elimination] in both countries.
Fourthly, Te Punaha Matatini became the government’s primary external source of advice once the lockdown policy was adopted despite considering lockdowns unnecessary prior to and at that time.
Fifthly, from that point, they supported lockdowns but never conducted any CBA on lockdown/elimination versus mitigation despite accepting the merits of such analysis and estimating or citing relevant data on deaths and GDP losses in a subsidiary exercise.
Finally, in respect of the Skegg Report, they favoured continued pursuit of elimination but presented no quantitative analysis in support of that, let alone a CBA.
I have not myself studied the underlying material which Dr Lally cites, but if his conclusions are correct they are a sad indictment on the quality of scientific advice which the Government was receiving.
Of course, this is not to excuse the Government itself:
• Government was inexcusably slow to order supplies of vaccine, with the result that we had scarcely begun vaccinating our population when some other countries were nearly finished doing so;
• Government did little or nothing to prepare hospitals, and in particular ICU capacity, for the eventual arrival of the Delta variant; and
• Government has made a total mess of managing the international border, with the result that even double-vaccinated New Zealand citizens have been unable to return to the country unless they win a lottery where the odds are stacked against them.
There may still be those who want to argue that the Government has done a good job handling the pandemic measured by the number of those who have died of Covid-19. But of course that number in isolation is meaningless. If a low number of Covid-19 deaths has been bought at the cost of more suicides, more cancelled cancer operations, more domestic violence, more mental health distress, and more failed businesses – leading to the reduction in average life expectancy found by Dr Gibson – it’s not an achievement to be proud of at all.