Opinion | Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

By Katherine Rich, Chief Executive, New Zealand Food & Grocery Council

One of the most disappointing aspects of New Zealand’s united COVID response is that, though well-intentioned, we don’t seem to build on lessons from each phase of the pandemic. Each time, we’ve found rules dreamt up by the Ministry of Health will either work relatively well or are completely impractical.

My favourite quote from a meeting with an official from the Police following the publication of yet another Health Order regarding the provision of food in cafes and food courts that was completely impractical to implement was, “You know, I think the person who drafted these rules has never eaten in a food court.”

The problem has been that with each new wave of the pandemic, rather than tune the response in relation to the food and grocery supply, sometimes completely new systems have been developed. We’ve gone from Levels, Steps within Levels, Frameworks, and now The Three Phases (which, forgive me, has a kind of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse sort of sound to it).

Both the frameworks and the three phases were silent on much of the detail that food and grocery supply need to function, so we have been very grateful to the Ministry for Primary Industries for taking the vague descriptions of the COVID response and creating helpful guidance for our industry.

But the latest frustration has been the Ministry of Health’s new plan to redefine “essential” businesses with the new descriptor “critical”. As one Government Minister noted, “all businesses are essential but some are more essential than others”, which had a George Orwell Animal Farm ring to it. As a result of the change, companies have been asked to register once again in a separate process to present their “critical” credentials.

For a while, there was the real possibility only the foods part of the Ministry of Health’s nutrition guidelines was going to get the official nod. Initially, “critical” foods would be the staples with no treats or occasional foods such as biscuits and chocolate. And definitely no beer. This was unlikely to be well-received by consumers.

For something that was previously relatively straightforward, the new registration proposed is complicated and bureaucratically slow and cumbersome.
And let’s be clear this system was not dreamt up as a way of combatting COVID, rather as a blunt rationing system for Rapid Antigen Test kits because the Ministry had taken its time to approve them and then place orders.

RAT kit suppliers confirmed to the Food & Grocery Council they were in a position to land millions of kits into New Zealand last year but were stymied by New Zealand’s hard-to-explain prohibition, its insistence on ignoring approvals of the US, Australia and EU (so we have a dramatically shorter list of options), and its tardiness in placing orders in the delivery pipeline.
The “reprioritising” of business RAT orders by the Ministry was not a popular move.

However it was described – “requisitioned”, “seconded”, “commandeered”, “purloined”, “pilfered”, or “swiped” – the impact was the same on the businesses with detailed pandemic plans in place: delayed plans. The Ministry’s actions put back by weeks the food industry’s plans to maintain the food and grocery supply. At the time of writing, we had members dealing with COVID in their factories, but I had not heard of any RATs being dispatched by the Ministry. This delay of three weeks was causing unnecessary harm and I expect that to continue unless supply has changed very quickly.

Omicron is bringing disruption, no doubt. But the disheartening aspect is some of that disruption comes not from the virus but from poor decisions made by the Ministry of Health, which does not have expertise in maintaining a grocery supply chain and seems to ignore expert advice from MBIE and the Ministry for Primary Industries – as well as from businesses dealing with the intricacies of the supply chain every day.

It’s time for the Ministry to devolve some of the food and grocery pandemic decisions back to those with the expertise to do this right and quickly.