Friday, June 24, 2022

Eric Crampton: Expecting better

In February, New Zealand’s PCR Covid testing system fell apart.

The Ministry of Health, the Director-General of Health, and the Ministers should have known it would happen. They repeatedly asserted it would not.

Last week, the government released Allen + Clarke’s rapid review of the failure.

The Report had a few conclusions. The most troubling is this:

“The reporting style of the COVID-19 Testing and Supply Group appears to assume its audience had the requisite background knowledge and understanding to interpret the reports and recognise the significance of what was being reported. It also doesn’t recognise the significant non-COVID workload of some of the audience, such as the Director-General or Ministers who have significant other portfolios to attend to. This is perhaps reflective of the capacity limitations of the group in such a demanding environment.”

To put it more bluntly, neither the Director-General of Health, nor the Ministers, understood the briefings they were provided on a matter of core responsibility.

It takes only very basic numeracy and a very basic understanding of how pooled testing works to immediately see the problem. And if you fail at either of those, simply looking across to Australia’s collapse in December should have been enough.

Here’s the obvious problem – as I explained on 24 January.

The country’s Covid testing system is likely to fall apart, quickly, when case numbers rise.

Testing labs can bundle five to ten samples together for testing. If none are positive, all is fine.

If the pooled sample is positive, individual samples need separate re-testing. When positivity rates are low, the system works well. But when positivity rates are high, pooled sampling stops working. Testing capacity drops to a small fraction of what it had been, just when it is most needed.

Headline figures on testing capacity may be more than a little optimistic. Contracting now for greater capacity, focusing on the saliva-based PCR testing (which identifies genetic material from the virus) that catches Omicron cases earlier, matters.

It does not take expert detailed attention to see the problem. I could see it. And I am just an economist - not a public health specialist.

If the Director-General of Health could not be made to understand the problem, he is not fit for the job.

We all deserve and should expect better.

Dr Eric Crampton is Chief Economist at the New Zealand Initiative HERE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'basic numeracy' - now that's a tall ask :(