Pandemic's pressure on public service keenly felt – Stuff.co.nz

EDITORIAL: It’s hard to escape talk of the pandemic. The virus has seeped into every nook and cranny of our existence.
Indeed, this paper has dedicated more column centimetres to Covid-19 than we’d dare count.
A similar issue is facing our public service.
The pandemic has, understandably, preoccupied those tasked with keeping us safe and healthy, and our essential services running.
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But almost two years after the virus came into our lives, we’re now seeing the toll taken by the extended redirection of resources.
Police say they are unable to carry out their core business – solving crimes – due to the number of police officers deployed to managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities and patrolling the Auckland border.
As police officers are deployed to the Covid-19 response, the force continues to grapple with recruitment and rising attrition rates. The Government has failed to deliver on its 2017 election promise of 1800 new cops by 2020 – an area where it was already lagging, when Covid finally scuppered any lingering hopes. The new target date is 2023.
Police Minister Poto Williams says this issue goes further than those 500 police staff at the borders. Staff across the entire public sector, including police, have been challenged during the pandemic.
The New Zealand Defence Force has similarly raised concerns about the impact the Covid-19 response is having on attrition, the capability to carry out training, and to respond to a major disaster.
More than 300 military personnel who served in MIQ facilities have quit the armed forces. A third of those who left recently cited work on Operation Protect as a factor in their decisions.
There are a range of areas in the public sector where Covid-19 has exacerbated pre-existing issues. Take the justice system, for example.
Nearly 6000 cases are waiting to be heard in courts nationwide, adding phenomenal pressure to the wider system.
On Monday, the prison population was 7723, which included 1908 people who had not been convicted of a crime. One man has spent more than four years awaiting trial; awaiting justice.
Last week, we highlighted the years-long waits for coronial inquiries. While the backlog has been steadily building during the past 10 years, Covid-19 has played a role.
New figures show just 62 unexpected deaths were investigated by inquest in 2019, compared to 330 in 2012. In 2020, that number dropped to 24 cases, due to lockdowns.
These capacity issues are set against a backdrop of the Labour Government’s ambitious reform agenda.
Since 2017 there have been well-meaning, and often overdue, promises of overhauls in complex areas such as health, mental health, education, housing, water infrastructure, local government and justice.
Whether any government could deliver on a policy agenda of this size in the Before Times is questionable – add Covid-19 to the mix, and it’s asking an awful lot of an already stretched public sector.
Of course work is going on behind the scenes, but Covid has impacted the pace of change. The bandwidth for this work, while a finite number of public servants simultaneously attempt to respond to a pandemic, just doesn’t exist.
In the meantime, flawed systems tick over; people suffer.
In 2017, Labour promised a mental health and addictions inquiry. In 2018, it held a ‘one-in-a-generation’ inquiry, culminating in the He Ara Oranga report.
Months later, the Government responded by accepting 38 of 40 recommendations, and announcing an unprecedented $1.9 billion spend to support mental wellbeing as part of its 2019 ‘Wellbeing Budget’.
Then we waited.
In September, almost three years on, Health Minister Andrew Little announced a 10-year plan for mental health, and a monitoring body to keep it on track.
While Covid-19 impacted progress on this workstream, the pandemic has also compounded distress and lockdowns have further delayed access to help.
It’s fair for those awaiting justice or equitable healthcare to ask for how long this work will be placed on the backburner.
Of course, the Covid-19 response was a worthy excuse… for a while. Two years on, it’s reasonable to expect bolstered systems and capacity to ensure the vital business of government can advance, alongside pandemic-related work.
If we don’t get moving soon, the downstream effects will likely be felt for years to come.
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