The military is no quarantine panacea.

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.

14 thoughts on “The military is no quarantine panacea.

  1. You ask some excellent questions, Pablo, and we do need answers. I think many of us were horrified to hear the news of the two women being allowed out of managed quarantine without requiring a negative test first, but now we have more background are wondering how many others have been able to leave quarantine in similar circumstances. I do think sectors of the public (which includes the media especially) need to take some blame for this as it was always known that likely transmission of Covid-19 would occur in large gatherings, particularly funerals and church services. The howling and baying about not being able to attend loved ones’ funerals was very loud from a number of sectors and the government relented as a result. I imagine the experts advising the government on stepping down to level one would have wanted to restrict numbers at these events for longer for obvious reasons. And the High Court decision to force the MoH to allow compassionate exemption was the beginning of loosening the requirements for granting exemptions.

    With regard to this: “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?” I suspect the answer is yes. The prime example I’m thinking of relates to the gang funeral where two of the 6 family members absconded, one was taken back to quarantine and the other, I believe, is still with the gang. Added to that was the situation where the gang in Hamilton took over an entire street for a few days, terrifying the residents. There appear to have been no intervention from police in any way, apart from observing. Gangs are going to do what gangs will do, but the arms-length stance of the police in this instance and others recently are astonishing – and there are quite a few of them of late.

    So all of this makes me wonder if bringing in someone from the military is a show of muscle after the very softly softly approach by the government, up until this fiasco, has followed. Personally I was pleased to see this move as someone with competence needs to overhaul the very shoddy practices that have been happening. I appreciate what you say about transparency. I still can’t work out where Mike Bush will fit into this new regime as he was the person tasked to oversee the border control/quarantine as far as I know.

  2. Di:

    It was a bt of a rhetorical question given that I suspect that you are correct and the police simply do not have the resources to do quarantine control. As for Mike Bush. He stepped down a couple of weeks ago (I think) and was replaced by Air Commodore Webb, who has now been given greater powers than his predecessor.

  3. Even to someone like me who, overall, leans pro-military I was baffled by this decision. The military is there to be used for emergencies and this pandemic clearly isn’t that.

    Since the start of the lockdown it has seemed to me that the government has been more interested in the perception of taking strong measures against the virus rather than taking the best ones. Earlier that typically meant shutting down stuff that didn’t need to be but now it seems to be ok to not test every person that comes across the border. A 14 day mandatory quarantine sounds good on paper (and to a fearful public) but what’s the point if you miss testing some people?

    I’ve seen so many poorly thought out decisions from govt throughout this pandemic that is has opened my eyes anew to just how incompetent they can really be. The want to control perceptions to a fearful public reminds me the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the past, both are problems that can be dealt with through brute force but that’s certainly not the most efficient path.

  4. Thanks Pablo. I had assumed Mike Bush was still at the helm as he commented as recently as yesterday on behalf of the government on the matter.

  5. James,

    I’m intrigued to know why you think this pandemic is not an emergency?

  6. “is the military bound by the Human Rights Act and other provisions protecting the rights of those detained”

    Why wouldn’t it? The Human Rights Act always applies unless law -specifically- contradicts it. The quarantine related legislation does override it at some points, but this will not change due to a change of personnel.

  7. The MOH has been gutted by years of underfunding and a culture of decision making being manager rather than clinician led. It is obvious that a corporatised management layer drenched in middle class exceptionalism and neoliberalism and with little medical background (being more used to managing perception and justifying declining budgets) is utterly out of it’s depth when it can’t use a one size fits all market led template. Hopefully the army at least still retains a different perception of what can constitute a good outcome.

  8. I’ve been thinking back to your article on the Peter Principle, Pablo.Two names have immediately sprung to mind in relation to that in regard to the current fiasco. John Ombler and Mike Bush.

  9. @Di Trower

    It has been pretty non-emergency since community transmission stopped about 6 weeks ago, nothing more than a simple clean-up and upkeep operation since then.

  10. So, James, you do not think the current economic crisis as a result of the pandemic is an emergency? I do – and we will have far tougher times to come. And globally we have just had the worst day in terms of new Covid case numbers.

  11. Maybe I just have a different conception of what the word emergency means but the current economic situation does not seem “emergent” to me. The economic crisis has been primarily a controlled operation (mostly but not entirely justified in my opinion), that doesn’t say “emergency” to me.

  12. Thanks Paul, nice to hear from you again. How is it going with those Thai hookers?

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