One of the most consistent critics of the Government’s Covid performance is Des Gorman. He was previously a Professor of Medicine in the faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at Auckland University. His doctorates were awarded for in-vivo brain injury research. During the last National Government he was appointed to the board of ACC, as the Executive Chairman of Health Workforce New Zealand, as a member of the National Health Board and to the Government’s welfare reform group.
I thought I would do a google trawl through media reports on his commentry to get a sense of what he has been saying. I could not think of one time where he had said anything positive. And my analysis confirmed this.
In April 2020 he said that New Zealand was ill-prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic and had been caught with its pants down. He thought that New Zealand should have closed its borders in mid-February, not the end of March but it didn’t do so because it did not have the resources to do so.
To a different news organisation he criticised the Government for going to level three from level four and not going to level 2 and darkly hinted that there was something that the Government was not telling us. Conspiracy nuts I am sure agreed with him. Contradicting what he said previously he claimed that New Zealand moved relatively quickly compared to other Western nations to shut the borders once the virus had arrived. But we should have quarantined returnees and not allowed them to self-isolate.
On May 4, 2020 he said that Covid was not going away and there was no point relying on level 3 lockdowns. Instead we should rely on social distancing, fastidious hygiene and isolating at the first sign of sickness. He also said the country’s economy had taken a massive hit and this has a huge social cost, so if evidence emerges that countries can control the disease with less draconian measures, that should be considered. He claimed darkly that most experts agreed with him but at that time they were “too frightened to speak out for fear of a backlash”.
A few days later he said that if evidence emerges that countries, such as Sweden, can control the disease with less draconian measures, that should be considered. In particular he said:
The living experiment of Sweden is an important one to watch. It’s going to have a high mortality. They are punting on herd immunity. It’s very brave – some people would describe it as reckless.”
Thankfully our government was not so “brave”.
On August 6, 2020 in an editorial to the Internal Medicine Journal he delved into economic commentray and said that the country may well have been better than most at containing this virus but not as good as some other countries.
The complete passage says:
What are the lessons we should take from this experience to reduce our exposure? We may well have been better than most at containing this virus, but that is not the point and invites an unhelpful complacency. Rather than casting ourselves as ‘best in show’, we need relentlessly to search for ways of doing better at protecting both our health and our livelihoods. Indeed, New Zealand had and has much to learn from other countries. Although the local lockdown worked well in suppressing the incidence of COVID-19, Australia was essentially able to match this using a more relaxed, and hence less economically punitive, process because of superior contact tracing. Taiwan has shown better quarantine and isolation measures, and countries such as Germany and Iceland have a much greater insight into COVID-19 prevalence. It is worth noting that, in contrast to New Zealand, all of these country exemplars have been quick adopters of technology.
The other countries mentioned, Australia, Taiwan, Germany and Iceland all have had significant outbreaks since Gorman wrote this. Germany in particular had a surge that has seen over 90,000 deaths occurring.
On August 14, 2020 the country went into level 3 lockdown after a cluster in Auckland appeared, centred around a coolstore in South Auckland and a number of churches that appeared to rely more on the will of God than medical sccience. Gorman ranked the government response at between 2 and 3 out of 10. He also said that it would take the economy 10 years to recover and that the country’s elimination strategy had been undermined by leaks at the boarder. He also advocated for National MPs to be involved in decision making.
He thought that level one would not be reached for between two weeks and seven weeks. He was partially correct here. Most of the country moved back into Level 1 five weeks later. It took Level 2 was reached in 18 days but it took Auckland eight weeks to get back to level one.
On August 21, 2020 Gorman again railed against the use of lockdowns. In an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal he said:
New Zealanders are confronted with a new reality: to learn to “live with COVID-19” until such time as we have herd immunity, hopefully by way of a vaccination in the next 18 months or so. This always was the reality, although 100 days with no community transmission tempted us to think it wasn’t true. The real question is “how best do we live with this virus”?
In our view, it makes no sense to continue to automatically resort to extensive social lockdowns because we are not well enough prepared to contain an outbreak without running unacceptable health risks if we don’t. Indeed, this strategy is unlikely to be sustainable, given that each time a lockdown is triggered it further undermines the twin foundations on which this approach rests: cheap public borrowing capacity and voluntary public compliance.
There is a better way: more disciplined border management, earlier detection through more testing along with faster contact tracing and isolation of cases, combined with approaches to social distancing (including masks) that are far more selective than full-scale Level Three or Four lockdowns.
The fact that we are still struggling to get the basic elements of this smarter approach right after so long suggests that we need a new approach. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Recent events in New South Wales and earlier events in Taiwan would suggest this approach is not optimal.
On August 23, 2020 Gorman managed to contradict himself in the same interview, no mean feat. He said that New Zealand had been caught up in a ‘’euphoria’’ of victory over the virus, which then led to complacency. He also said were taking the virus more seriously the second time, as he felt their trust and confidence had been “seriously eroded”. Which emotion, euphoria, or seriously eroded confidence was dominant he has not specified.
On September 2, 2020 Gorman advocated for multiple layers of protection after five people who had tested negative for Covid before travelling from India to New Zealand then tested positive while in isolation facilities. Thankfully there were multiple layers of protection and in this case they worked.
On January 24, 2021 he said:
“There’s just been this reluctance to engage with anybody else with ideas,” says Professor Des Gorman. “What underpins this reticence? Political risk has driven a culture of ‘best in show’, ‘we’re the envy of the world’. It’s a very pervasive culture, and it’s the wrong culture. The culture we should have is: how do we do better tomorrow than we did yesterday?”
Experts such as Michael Baker agreed. But Baker has said positive things about the country’s performance as well as providing constructive criticism.
January 26, 2021 Gorman said that the country was enjoying some dumb good luck. From Radio New Zealand:
It is “dumb good luck” rather than good management that no-one else has so far tested positive for Covid-19 following the latest community case, a health expert says.
Managed isolation system is not working as it should, and New Zealand is extremely vulnerable as it waits in the queue for a vaccine.
New Zealand’s borders should be closed temporarily while things were improved to face the new strains of the virus.
“We’ve got a very leaky border, we’re trying to use hotels as quarantine facilities, we’ve got a community which doesn’t have any immune resistance to this virus. We are peculiarly vulnerable.”
On February 15, 2021 Gorman said that the decision to have detention centres in the middle of Auckland was nuts. From Newstalk ZB:
“Why are we still isolating high-risk returnees in the middle of our largest city? This is simply nuts. We are putting our livelihoods and wellbeings at risk because we are simply not managing the level of risk that we currently have appropriately. We haven’t thought through the risk we are prepared to live with. If level 3 is the right reponse then they shouldn’t have been quarantined in Auckland.”
He thought that the infection could be related to a failure at managed isolation. The most likely explanation that subsequently appeared is that the source case may have contracted the virus through her work at LSG Sky Chefs handling laundry for international airlines.
On February 16, 2021 he appeared on Seven Sharp to talk about what he thought would happen next.
“My best guess, and it is a guess, would be that the Government will try and buy time and they will extend this window of observation out until Friday (the 20th) at least,” he said.
The Government subsequently went back to level 2 with effect from the 18th of February.
On February 18, 2021 Gorman commented that he believed Government responses were being driven by optics, not science.
“Certainly, if you take Sunday, for example, if we need to be in level 3 – and you and I would say that was a reasonable response to the unknown at the time – then how on Earth did they let the Big Gay Out and the America’s Cup go ahead?
“No wonder people are anxious and when you add that political theatre we are seeing in terms of the level announcements. People are becoming quite distressed by all this and part of that is, they simply can’t see any predictability to the response.”
A Government spokesperson disputed Gorman comments and said the response to the Auckland community cases was consistent with the COVID-19 resurgence plan and identical to the approach taken to the Auckland August outbreak.
The announcement was made at 5:30 pm on the Sunday after the event had already happened. There has to be a lead in time so that arrangements could be put in place. And with the benefit of hindsight the outbreak was contained.
On March 3, 2021 Gorman said “[o]ur contact tracing still isn’t good enough and it hasn’t improved since last July,” after a single case where a contact tracer had rang someone 15 times to try and get hold of them.
Scientists should know that it is not advisable to determine the course of a trend from a single example.
He also said that while the vaccine rollout will help, it won’t be a “silver bullet” as variants mean the virus will continue to be a global issue. I am sure we can all agree with that.
On March 17, 2021 Gorman made some comments critical of Plan B. From Stuff:
Auckland University professor Des Gorman said Covid Plan B was legitimising VFF by sharing its content and appearing on its platforms, even if it did not agree with everything the group said.
He was concerned it could lead to vaccine hesitancy.
Gorman, who has criticised the Government’s Covid-19 response, said there was a fine line between promoting academic freedom of expression and promoting falsehoods.
“We should never stifle academic debate, but when [academics] are promoting misinformation that may create public harm, we have to stand up and say ‘sorry you have crossed a line’.”
Again agreed completely.
On April 13, 2021 Gorman had further criticism, also valid, that the mandatory testing system of border workers was not working.
On April 14, 2021 he criticised the vaccine roll out.
Des Gorman has strongly criticized the Government for failing to accelerate the administration of vaccinations, noting at the current rate, it will take roughly five years to inoculate New Zealand’s population against COVID-19.
“To actually vaccinate the country this year, we need to be hitting over 27,000 vaccinations a day… why is there a hold-up?”
The vaccination rate is tracking ahead of what is planned.
And recently the country crushed the 27,000 figure as part of the ramp up.
On May 1, 2021 Gorman said there needed to be checks at every step of the bubble, as the current system was far too reliant on good behaviour and people inherently doing the right thing.
“Our elimination strategy leave us absolutely reliant on two things – a secure border and effective contact tracing and at the moment none of those are up to the level we’d like to have to have any sense of security.”
On June 10, 2021 Gorman said the country could soon run out of vaccine. Dear reader this did not happen.
On June 18, 2021 University of Otago public health professor Nick Wilson said that staggering the rollout by age is a “very good” approach.
“To take that approach of going down the age groups is a very good one – it’s worked very well in the UK. So I think this is looking good for the rest of the vaccine rollout.”
“Most of the vaccine-hesitant are young and if we say, ‘We don’t need to vaccinate you until the end of the year’, what are we telling them? ‘You’re at such low risk and this is not a big deal for you?’ Now I can’t see that encouraging vaccination, to be honest.”
The rationale, that older people are more vulnerable I would think was pretty evident.
On June 19, 2021 Gorman said that the Government’s vaccination targets were entirely arbitrary, essentially a communications tool that can be used to suggest the government has got Covid under control. 1.5 million completed vaccination shots would suggest otherwise.
On June 24, 2021 Gorman suggested that the response to the latest virus incursion which was discovered on a Tuesday night and released on a Wednesday morning were unacceptable.
It’s not just vaccinations and use of the Tracer app that need to improve before we can safely open the borders, he thinks – the Ministry of Health also needs to up its game. Dr Gorman says it was too slow to notify the public of the potential exposure in Wellington.
Despite knowing about the case on Tuesday night, it didn’t go public until Wednesday morning. By then most Kiwis had already heard about it via Australian media reports.
Clearly sleep, the notification happened late at night, and the need to accurately identify all sites of interest were not relevant considerations.
Then on July 14, 2021 after infected overseas fishermen were quarantined in Wellington he said that the public had been exposed to unnecessary risk. From Radio New Zealand:
University of Auckland’s Des Gorman told Morning Report the Wellington public had been exposed to undue risk because the system designed to keep the virus out the country had not be executed.
Viking Bay fishing vessel crew members were transferred from the ship berthed in Wellington to the Grand Mercure Hotel in the capital yesterday. One of the infected crew was confirmed as having the virulent Delta variant.
The hotel usually keeps one floor with 10 rooms for infected people, but to accommodate the extra demand it has opened up a second level.
Gorman said the hotel hadn’t been designed to stop people breathing in others’ exhaled breath and keep their environments separate and the whole episode posed an unnecessary risk that now needed to be minimised.
“I don’t think the mariners should have been allowed anywhere near New Zealand waters without proper pre-departure testing and appropriate quarantine,” he said
“You just add layer upon layer to risks, because of our basic strategy of keeping this disease out of the country until we’re vaccinated just simply wasn’t executed.”
The fishermen had prior to entry into New Zealand provided clean Covid tests.
Finally on July 24, 2021 he suggested there should be no political decision making in relation to Covid.
A university professor has called on the Government to relinquish control of the COVID-19 response to an expert health group, to lessen the risks political decisions will get in the way of a good health response.
There are now more than 40,000 new cases being reported every day, with that expected to rise now restrictions are gone. Luckily two-thirds of Brits have been vaccinated, reducing the likelihood deaths will rise to the levels seen during the massive wave at the start of the year.
“I think it’s early, I think it’s precipitous, I think it’s probably dangerous,” said Dr Gorman. “But I understand why it became a political necessity.”
“The Government makes it clear to the group what its expectations are, but then gets out of the way of people who are actually experts.”
Given the clear respect for the science that this Government has shown this is an expecially strange proposal. And it makes you wonder about his earlier suggestion that politicians from all sides of the aisle should be making decisions.
He has been consistently negative, and consistently wrong. There have been occasions when he has suggested changes to procedure that the Government were implementing. Apart from that his comments have matched National’s rhetoric. The lock downs are too stringent and are not working, and the border is too loose and is not working.
At different times according to Gorman the Government has been caught with its pants down, had acted too quickly, was hiding things from the population, the economy had taken a massive hit, that most experts were too afraid because of fear of a backlash, that less draconian steps should be taken, that more draconian steps at the border should be taken, that the country may well have been better than most at containing the virus but only deserved a mark of two out of ten, that Kiwis had felt euphoria at the same time that their confidence had been seriously eroded, that there was a reluctance to engage with experts and that our success was down to dumb good luck. He has claimed that the Government response is being driven by optics and not science and that the virus roll out could take up to five years.
The overall impression created by Gorman’s comments is negative. And makes you wonder how it is possible that the country has been able to maintain its current situation and effectively keep Covid out.