New Zealand has had more than its share of good luck in the Covid-19 crisis. Our relative isolation meant that the disease was late to arrive here. This reprieve gave us the chance to watch the tragedy unfolding overseas and not to dwell on strategies that were seen to be failing.
In years gone by we might have taken our lead from the United Kingdom. Indeed, British researchers have contributed disproportionately to the world’s science on Covid-19, something for which we should all be very grateful. The puzzle though, is that the British government has largely failed to act on this science, while our political leaders put it to use.
From my perspective, as a scientist who has been advising New Zealand’s government, the secret sauce of our response has been trust. In my circles, much has been made of the trust our politicians seem to have put in this science. Many scientists are now wondering if we can use this to solve other problems that have been hard to spur action on, such as climate change or water quality.
Just as important is the trust that many of us involved in the response have had in our political leaders. Scientists who have ever had the ear of a politician will understand this pressure: how free and frank can you be before you lose that seat at the table?
For the relationship to work well, scientists need to trust the politicians they advise as much as politicians need to trust them. In the UK, the relationship broke down years ago in the bonfire of expertise that was required to deliver Brexit. It has become clear that unwelcome advice is no longer tolerated.
New Zealand is not immune to this. But during the Covid-19 crisis, scientists have had the confidence that the advice they gave the government would be used responsibly, and not ignored or misused.
This is one of the reasons why the leak of confidential patient information by National MP, Hamish Walker, has the potential to be so corrosive. Quite apart from the immediate consequences for those whose personal details were leaked, this was a staggering breach of faith with the healthcare professionals and scientists who collect and analyse this data.
This community has worked hard to preserve New Zealanders’ privacy during the crisis. One of my hardest days in lockdown was spent working through a detailed privacy assessment with the office of the privacy commissioner. We were under pressure to deliver advice on the decision to move from Level 3 to Level 2 and we needed information about the contact history of patients to support our assessment of the contact tracing system. It made for a very long day, but it was the right thing to do.
It would have been easy for us all to ignore privacy concerns in the heat of the moment to deliver the information the government needed. We didn’t. We not only understood the harm that could be done to particular individuals and communities, we were also very aware of what could happen if the public lost the confidence to share their details with us.
Researchers accept that politicians will bring their own values to the evidence in their decision-making. And we know that politicians will inevitably use that evidence to shift some of the risk in making their decisions back onto us. This is part of the deal that we sign up for. But in order to do our jobs, we have to trust that any evidence will be used responsibly, not to target vulnerable members of society.
Science itself is not squeaky clean here, but it should be clear from how Covid-19 has been handled around the world that public trust is paramount. We fail if we, or the politicians we advise, betray this trust.
It is election year, but let’s not allow our politics to set fire to the key ingredient that has so far kept us safe from Covid-19.
Professor Shaun Hendy from the University of Auckland is director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a centre of research excellence that has been using models to advise the New Zealand government on Covid-19.