The Government’s blanket ban on compassionate exemptions is an ill-considered and automated response that is seeing grieving families “paying the ultimate price”, Oliver Christiansen says.
Over the past two months, Christiansen knows all too well the impact of the Government’s decisions which saw him take director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield and the Ministry of Health all the way to the High Court to get a decision overturned so that he could see his dying father.
He arrived in New Zealand from the United Kingdom on April 23, before applying for an exemption from managed isolation – based on compassionate grounds – so he could see his father for the last time.
The Ministry of Health, after first mistaking what was being asked for, repeatedly declined the application.
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After winning his case at the Auckland High Court it sparked a review of applications like his, with many winning.
Christiansen is now back in the United Kingdom but has been following the “shambles” that has unravelled in New Zealand over the past week after two women were allowed to travel from Auckland to Wellington without being tested for Covid-19.
The women later tested positive, with Bloomfield yesterday revealing there were more than 300 close contacts of the women, including two who the pair “kissed and cuddled” after getting lost on the Auckland motorway.
After the bungle, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she was putting a blanket ban on approving any compassionate exemptions for grieving Kiwis returning home to see dying relatives.
It’s a decision that has left Christiansen gutted.
“There’s no way that I’m not extremely saddened by the Government’s response to its own failings with this blanket ban.
“It just seems to be evidence of the same ill-considered, automated decision-making that we were fighting against with our compassionate exemptions in the first place.”
He said it wasn’t fair and that grieving families shouldn’t be the ones having to pay “the ultimate price for the Government’s inability to follow its own procedures even at the most agonising time”.
“As I say, it just smacks of unconsidered, automated decision-making and it sounds like little has changed in the last seven weeks because it’s the same wall that we were trying to bash through in the first place to even allow these compassionate exemptions because zero were allowed before the court had to step in.
“I think grieving Kiwis travelling home should not be the ones punished.
“The Government needs to show compassion, use their discretion, not automatic rejection, during these critical end-of-life moments.
“These are people who are under severe stress and time-pressure moments which, having been through myself, you realise these final end-of-life times just cannot be missed … they’re just not exercising their discretion and there’s clear basis that it’s a disproportionate response to the potential harm of the New Zealand public.”
Christiansen said not being allowed to attend a family member’s funeral through no fault of your own was something that would stick with that person forever.
“You only get one chance to farewell a loved one and to have that taken away is obviously going to have lasting effects and it will never be forgotten.”
He said it wasn’t a matter of any Government heads having to roll, it was simply about people doing their jobs properly.
“These Kiwis are only travelling home for one reason. They’re not going home to go fishing.
“Then to have the rope pulled, through no fault of their own whatsoever, that mixture of grief and helplessness is brutal and so I feel really sorry for them, I really do.”
He was surprised that there wasn’t mandatory testing when he arrived in New Zealand in April, let alone now.
“I was trying to get tested since the day I arrived in the country in order to get out and that was every day for eight days. It wasn’t until I was actually literally within sight of my parents’ home that I got a call from my lawyer saying the ministry tells me now I have to go and get a test before i’m allowed to visit.
“It just goes back to doing your job, following the processes and procedures to the letter and that involves testing, identifying individual symptoms and just doing your job properly at every stage, and if you do that there’s no reason why a blanket ban on these compassionate exemptions cannot be overturned immediately because procedures are in place, it’s just following them properly.”
As for how the decision could be overturned, he said it was now up to the public to make their voices heard as although it was a health issue, it was also, unfortunately, a political one.
“It’s going to be the public outcry that the decision is unjustified, a complete lack of compassion being shown, a lack of discretion on people’s circumstances and that’s what this is all about.
“It’s the weight of public opinion. There’s an election just around the corner, so at the end of the day, it’s partly about health but it’s also a lot about politics, which it shouldn’t be, it should be irrelevant when people are trying to farewell loved ones.”
He said New Zealanders had made “massive sacrifices and to their own detriment and to the country’s economic detriment in a way which we don’t fully understand yet” and he can understand why so many were “pissed off”.
“But putting the kibosh on compassionate exemptions is just lazy … it’s not proportionate.”