A word of caution: the military is not a quarantine panacea.
At least 60 NZDF personnel have been on quarantine patrol duties since April 1, and yet breaches of the restrictions on physical contact occurred. What is more, the NZDF presumably has its own testing regime in place (for its personnel, primarily–there were at least 7 NZDF cases reported by April–but also as part of the overall quarantine testing regime) and yet no NZDF tests were administered at quarantine sites as far as I can tell. In addition, the NZDF record on transparency is poor. It has a record of coverups and whitewashes (e.g Operation Burnham). So yes, it has the legal authority (under the Epidemic Notice and National Transition Period legislation, which invoke assistance clauses in the Defense Act and/or Section 66 of the Civil Defense Emergency Management Act ) and logistical capacity to improve quarantine restriction enforcement, but it is an open question as to whether it will perform better or report honestly on its mission given its track record. It is folly to simply punt the task of enforcing the quarantine to the NZDF and expect things to automatically get better.
There also seems to be more to the move than meets the eye. In retrospect, it now seems plausible that the Navy crowd control exercise undertaken last week was oriented towards more than overseas deployments (as should be expected and as I had suggested earlier) and raises the possibility that the government knew that things were amiss in the quarantine regime well before the breaches were made public, and yet suppressed that information. There is much to unpack here.
Let’s leave aside what the Health Ministry may or may not have known about quarantine breaches, where in the chain of command did the failures to effectively enforce the quarantine restrictions occur, who made compassionate exemptions without testing, and why anyone in a position of authority would cover up the possibility that a lethal disease had escaped isolation. Instead, given that the quarantine regime is now under military control, questions should be asked as to why that step was needed. For example, why are the police not being used to enforce these quarantine restrictions on freedom of movement of NZ citizens, residents and visitors? Are they understaffed?
This is what the government says that the new quarantine boss, Assistant Defense Force Chief Air Commodore Darren “Digby” Webb, will undertake and what his powers include. First, a”start-to-finish audit” of the existing systems and written protocols at the border. To do so he will have access to the country’s military logistics and operational expertise. Then, if required, he can bring in military personnel to help run the facilities, and make any changes to further strengthen border defences. That is quite a broad mandate.
It also raises more questions. First, Air Commodore Webb replaced former Police Commissioner Mike Bush a few weeks ago as quarantine czar and was in charge when two women who later tested positive for CV-19 were granted leave from quarantine without being tested. Will granting him more authority improve his decision-making or was he hamstrung from the start by MoH officialdom and/or protocols? Second, if 60 NZDF personnel could not stop breaches of the quarantine regime, how many more will be needed to do so? Third, what is Air Commodore Webb’s relationship vis a vis the Health Minister and Director General of Health in light of the above? Can he pull rank on them or is he, and his handling of the health cordon, bound by civilian Human Resources regulations and other non-military protocols when it comes to non-military personnel under his control and supervision? Fourth, even with emergency legislation enabling the deputisation of the military in this instance, is the military bound by the Human Rights Act and other provisions protecting the rights of those detained, or are those quarantined to fall under military law or a mix of military and civilian law under the emergency powers conferred to it?
Normally, when the military is assigned a mission, it develops in advance of deployment an operational plan that includes specific targets and objectives, then marshals resources, prepares logistics, musters personnel, and stages in wait of the order to proceed. In this instance none of that appears to have happened other than the Navy crowd control exercise (if indeed that had a quarantine-related aspect). Instead, Air Commodore Webb will undertake a “comprehensive” audit of quarantine protocols and procedures. Given that he has been on the job for a while, it is surprising that that review did not begin immediately after he replaced former Commissioner Bush. It also means that any military response is still in the making unless planning and preparations have been done unannounced and unnoticed.
There may be simple answers to these questions that clarify the chain of command and rules of engagement in the revamped quarantine regime, and I welcome any clarifications to that effect.
I shall ignore the sideline whinging and bleating coming from the opposition and rightwing commentators. This was the crowd that after initially welcoming the “go early, go hard” approach to the pandemic, started to yelp about lifting the lockdown and re-opening the economy by the end of April. The fools includes university charlatans like the Auckland University VC, who initially claimed that prohibitions on returning students from China were due to “racism,” and more recently cried economic dependence on foreign tuition as an excuse to let them back in, only to have China now enveloped in a second wave of infections–including in the capital city. This, from a guy who is supposedly the leader of a university from which many of the epidemiologists who advise the government come from! Perhaps he should take his golden parachute, fade back into the vapour and leave authoritative talking to others.
Having said that, we cannot dismiss the fact that the two ladies who were allowed out of quarantine on compassionate grounds may be the tip of an infectious iceberg. Something went wrong and it is possible that several people were involved and errors were made throughout the Health Ministry hierarchy that contributed to it. That needs addressing and remedying. Responsibility must be assumed, and if merited disciplinary action must be taken. One easy step would be to offer the resignation of the hapless Health Minister as a sop to the braying Opposition donkeys while moving someone competent into the role (admitting that David Parker may be still in his job because he is instrumental in the DHB re-structuring project).
Whatever the case, it is not entirely clear that a knee jerk move to “bring in the military” is going to rectify whatever went wrong. It might, but the specific ways in which having uniforms lead and run the quarantine regime are a matter of observable action, not blind faith.