Opinion: Government caution to blame for mass Covid testing chaos

OPINION

Any confidence that we learned our lessons from last year’s lockdown regarding mass virus testing should be thrown out the window.

Having been through this process before, one would assume the Ministry of Health and its various providers would have a clear and concise plan to efficiently deliver mass Covid-19 testing to as many people as possible.

Instead, close contacts and essential workers were made to wait more than 10 hours for a test – some were even turned away as demand trumped capacity.

Queues of cars wreaked havoc with what little traffic was on the roads under alert level 4 restrictions, indicating a clear lack in appropriate facilities for such efforts.

Nurses lost their chance to campaign for better pay and were once again “asked” to swab the country’s nasal passages, working 14-hour days with little respite.

While the majority of people were grateful, security staff copped abuse across the region as frustrations boiled over.

It could have easily been a replay of last year’s testing rush – which saw the same stresses felt and sent health officials scrambling to find solutions.

The question remains; how did we let this happen again?

Many people who clogged testing centres in the past few days were, in fact, people who shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

They were the people getting tested as a precaution, those who – quite understandably – wanted to be sure they weren’t carrying the virus, but didn’t have symptoms or weren’t close contacts.

This is an unfortunate consequence of the Government’s all-consuming message of caution, which has limited the Prime Minister’s ability to effectively communicate.

For anyone with common sense, it’s entirely reasonable to assume a visit to a location of interest on the same day as a positive case would require a test – even though it doesn’t.

The same goes for Devonport residents. Given the virus re-entered the country through the North Shore suburb, you can sympathise with neighbours who might imagine Covid particles floating through the air and clinging to every surface.

Unfortunately, having a virus-related postcode does not immediately qualify you for a swab.

Jacinda Ardern reinforces this often – pleading people to stay home if you don’t meet the criteria.

The only problem is people’s fear of the virus and commitment to caution is too powerful.

For more than a year, the public has been told – time and again – that we all have to play our part to ensure we aren’t overwhelmed by Covid-19.

So getting a test is just them doing their bit, as part of the team of 5 million.

The outcome is people who should be tested first are shoved to the back of the queue and our nurses are worked into the ground.

The frustrating aspect is that we’ve been through this before.

We know what happens when calls for mass testing are sounded and yet nothing seems to have changed in the 17 months we’ve had to prepare.

A traffic management staffer at one of Auckland’s testing centres could only shake his head when asked how we’d managed to screw things up again.

With 25 years’ experience, he knows how to run these mass events. He knows it requires a certain kind of facility, a strong traffic plan and a fully complemented workforce to run it.

He suspects, as is so often the case, those making the plans do not have the experience on the ground to know what works and what doesn’t – leading to initial frustration before common sense can prevail.

What is most disappointing is that it’s our nurses who are bailing us out again.

They have no choice but to rise to the occasion. They know their communities need them, rain or shine, swabbing every nose possible.

The hope is – likely a naive one – that their sacrifices will not be forgotten by those who hold the keys to better pay and improved working conditions.

But if the past week has signalled anything, it’s that we will never be able to successfully operate mass testing without addressing the historical issues in our health workforce.

If you head to a well-resourced medical centre, you will see how mass events should be run and what they all have in common is sufficient staffing.

Without the necessary numbers, people’s anxieties will continue to defeat efforts to prioritise testing for those who need it.

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