Friday, 7 August 2020

Mapping Covid in NZ: Genome says?

Things I learned from what looks to be a superb study on Covid in New Zealand using genetic analysis of 56% of all confirmed cases:
  1. Only 19% of cases that came into New Zealand resulted in more than one additional person being infected while 24% led to a single additional infection - presumably policy substantially reduced transmission;
  2. Lockdown reduced R-naught of our biggest cluster from 7 to 0.2 within a week;
  3. The 649 cases analysed showed 277 separate introductions of the virus into New Zealand;
  4. There is no evidence of the virus circulating before the first reported case on 26 February;
  5. The largest cluster came from the US, and North America provided most of the cases resulting in transmission linkages.
I was very worried in February that it had already gotten here. Somehow, it hadn't. We've been very lucky. 

Oh, and obviously, lockdown worked. 

Things you wouldn't think need explaining, but somehow still do

The world's a puzzling place.

Maybe cognitive constraints bind a lot more tightly than I'd ever thought. 

The government runs New Zealand's managed isolation system for arrivals at the border. The Ministry of Health was making an awful mess of things, so the military took over parts of it. 

This week we learned that the government hasn't really been testing frontline isolation staff for Covid. They have an aspirational target of testing staff every two weeks, and do have more regular health checks for fever and the like. 

This seems like one of those things that anyone who's been paying the least bit of attention to the whole Covid thing might have already known, without a report. 

Just look at this. 
The Ministry of Health has seen the report and asked the authors to provide more details about the difference between a test every two weeks compared to once a week.

“You definitely get a lot of extra benefit from the weekly test as opposed to two weeks,” Hendy said. “The Ministry is certainly keen to understand the risks and how to manage it.”

Currently, there are tests available for workers who develop symptoms. Hendy concedes people shouldn’t be forced to take weekly swabs but strongly encouraged to do so.

“If those weekly tests are available then that drastically cuts the risk of them passing the disease undetected onto other people such as family members or others in the community,” Hendy said.

“It would mean we caught it early enough before it got passed on more widely.”
Just amazing. 

It's amazing that the Ministry has to be told that testing is a good idea.

It's amazing that the Ministry would assign ANY staff into these roles who would not be willing to undergo regular tests. It's stupid because the testing matters, and it's stupid because the kinds of people who would refuse to be tested are the last people you want anywhere near a freaking managed isolation system. What other corners would those Covidiots be happy to cut? Don't hire muppets in these roles! It's too important!

This thing is going to be around for a long time. Getting the border processes right matters. It's amazing that we haven't had an outbreak yet despite all this. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Innovative island nations

An intriguing proposal from an innovative island nation offering safer respite from the pandemic:
The government of a Caribbean island has a tantalizing suggestion for quarantine-weary Canadians: Working from home is a lot more palatable when you're doing it remotely from a tropical paradise.

The island nation of Barbados has launched something it's calling a Barbados Welcome Stamp, a one-year remote working visa that gives foreigners the right to live and work remotely in Barbados while they ride out the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting now, applicants can send in their personal information at a portal website. The application will be processed within 72 hours, at which point they may be approved to come live and work remotely in Barbados.

There are a few stipulations, namely that you have to make $50,000 US a year and there's a non-refundable fee of $2,000 US for an individual and $3,000 US for families, but once that's paid, a successful applicant is all set.

"You don't need to work in Europe, or the U.S or Latin America if you can come here and work for a couple months at a time, go back and come back," Barbados Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said when she first suggested the idea earlier this month.
There would be a lot of interest in this kind of option in New Zealand as well, with arrivals covering their own costs of testing and of managed isolation. Because I've been rather active in this space, I get emails from folks abroad who'd be eager to join us. This one came in last week: 
Greetings Dr. Crampton,
I noticed your tweet last week, quoted here:
"It is really hard to overstate the potential gains if NZ can sort out scaling up managed isolation to enable some of these workers to bring their jobs with them to work remotely from here." -- @EricCrampton
My wife and I are former XXXXXX engineering Directors who just left XXXXXX to start a start-up. We're US-born, living in Northern California. We realized it would be great to work in NZ for a year or a few years, not just because of covid, but because the US political situation is not great. In the time of pre-Covid NZ immigration, it looks like this was easy, and we probably would already be in NZ on a short-term visa, and would be applying for an entrepreneur's visa, with the idea of staffing up starting in NZ.
But of course there is Covid. My best understanding of the NZ gov web sites is that there are no channels open to us now,
Can you share any advice about how we should best proceed?  Of course, if there's someone better for us to talk to or work with (whether in the domain of gov, org, or commercial expediters), please let me know.
I advised my correspondent that nothing here is likely to change this side of the election, so they might either wait, or try a more innovative island nation like Barbados instead. They've said they're waiting. 

Safely scaling up managed isolation matters. 

I cover this stuff in this week's column over at Newsroom - currently gated, but usually comes ungated later in the week. A snippet:
Effective capacity in managed isolation has increased to just over 14,000 arrivals per month. While that sounds like a lot, the average month in 2019 saw over 250,000 Kiwis returning home after business trips, foreign study, holidays, or visits with friends and family. Non-resident Kiwis returning home from abroad for the longer term added about another 1,750 per month.

There will not be a lot of Kiwis keen on travelling to the Covid-ridden parts of the world, but the longer the pandemic lasts, the harder it will be to continue to defer travel. Even if Kiwis cut their travel to a quarter of what it was before Covid, they would still take up more than four times as much room as is available in the managed isolation system. Add to that tally the Kiwis abroad who would also like to come home, as well as the overseas specialists necessary in a wide range of business and infrastructure projects, and the need to safely scale up managed isolation becomes rather obvious.

If the Government expected vaccines or effective treatment to be just around the corner, maintaining the system as it is could be defensible. People can usually defer travel for a few months, barring emergency cases. Holidays to visit family and friends abroad can be delayed. Big trips abroad are once-in-a-lifetime events for a lot of us and putting them off for a year might not matter so much – and especially when going abroad is particularly unappealing. Business trips can be delayed, with video chats taking their place in the short term.

But the longer this all lasts, the harder it is to defer travel.

The odds of family emergencies abroad get higher over longer periods. 1.2 million Kiwis were born overseas. If ten percent of them have a family emergency in any given year requiring a trip abroad, that’s 10,000 spaces in managed isolation per month as they return home.

The costs of forgoing business travel increase as opportunities deferred become lost contacts and contracts – over 32,000 Kiwis returned from business trips abroad every month, before Covid. And companies here needing foreign experts can only defer those arrivals for so long before costs start rapidly escalating.

None of this is any argument for prioritising ‘the economy’ or business over health. Any outbreak here resulting in another lockdown would be economically devastating. Rather, it is an argument for building the systems and infrastructure necessary to be able to safely accommodate far more travellers than the system can currently handle.

By these numbers, scaling up is critical even if we consider only the needs of Kiwis. If we allow ourselves to think a bit more broadly, it becomes even more important.

New Zealand’s success in managing Covid makes the country a very attractive proposition. Students who would have studied in America, but who do not like the prospect of lectures via Zoom, could find studying here to be a very attractive alternative.

And many abroad, working remotely due to the pandemic, could bring their jobs with them to work remotely from here instead. As they would continue to be paid by their overseas employers, their work in New Zealand would count as the export of a service while they spent their earnings, and paid taxes, here. Other countries rightly see this opportunity: last week, Barbados began offering a one-year remote working visa encouraging people to bring their jobs with them to their island in the Caribbean.

The system has to change.  

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Fix the darned pipes

Wellington loses somewhere between 7 and 32 percent of its water because of leaks in the pipes. Nobody knows how much is lost because water isn't properly metered. Wellington has more than three times as many old cruddy pipes as the next worst council, Christchurch. 

Getting a new source to meet both new demand and the leaks will cost $250 million. Additional sources are likely worth having anyway for resilience against quakes, so long as they don't feed into the same potential fail point of the big pipe at the main faultlines. But the leaks mean supply costs are higher than they need to be. 

Metering makes an awful lot of sense - or at least I'm pretty optimistic that the business case will come out well. 

Wellington Council's decided to spend $200m strengthening the library rather than looking to the something more like a $90 million model based on the rather nice example in Christchurch. 

There are somewhere around 80,000 households in Wellington. The library then costs each household a bit over $3k in capital costs. There's a huge looming capital cost in fixing all the pipes. 

So long as voters keep rewarding councillors and mayors for flashy new convention centres ($180 million, or about $2,250 per household) and for deciding that 1990s libraries are actually historical monuments that have to be kept exactly as-is but strengthened every few years to new standards, and keep failing to punish councillors and mayors for letting all of the underground infrastructure rot out from under us, this is what we'll keep getting. 

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Better borders

Kate MacNamara over at the Herald goes through the problems caused by the current lack of capacity in New Zealand's managed isolation facilities
New Zealand's current border settings allow only citizens and permanent residents into the country, with very limited exceptions.

Despite these restrictions, demand has threatened to overwhelm the Government's capacity to accept arrivals, at least under the current policy settings. New Zealand requires all arrivals to spend at least 14 days in managed isolation, at which point most leave following a negative test for the virus.

Capacity for such approved facilities is roughly 6000 per fortnight. Recently, those facilities came so close to brimming over that the Government, through airlines, suspended new international bookings for arrival into the country for most of July.

The log jam has many implications. It curtailed the ability of New Zealanders abroad to return home (there is an estimated one million, though there is no way currently to estimate demand for return). It has also pushed farther toward the horizon the prospect of New Zealand accepting a wider range of arrivals, foreign students, work visa holders and tourists among them.

All have large implications for the economy; foreign students brought in some $5 billion annually before Covid-19. International tourism was more valuable still.
MacNamara also notes the suggestions I've had for scaling things up at the border. 

This is a problem that isn't going to go away. The virus is going to be around for a long time. Getting things set at the border to enable more people safely to re-enter will become increasingly important. Delaying travel gets more and more costly for those who are able move their travel plans around. 

Even the best system can leak. Making sure that contact tracing is up to spec is important. I still think it would be a good idea for the government to start training even more contact tracers, just in case. They could manage it as a kind of Army Reserves, but for contact tracing. Pay people from all over the country to attend training and provide a stipend for them to be willing to be called into contact tracing service if needed for the door-knocking parts of the job that cannot be done from remote call-tracing centres.

Meanwhile, Stuff reports that AirNZ understands the government now to be working on a voucher system for returning Kiwis. I have no inside knowledge on that one - I have floated the idea in opeds over the past month or longer, and on twitter, [update - and a podcast!] well before our report on it came out last week. 

I hope that AirNZ is right on this!
Air New Zealand chief commercial and customer officer Cam Wallace said the Government was looking to set up a voucher system which passengers would need to access in order to return to New Zealand, regardless of which airline they flew with.

His understanding was that it would be up to customers to obtain vouchers before booking an airfare home. Failure to do so would result in passengers not being allowed to board a flight to New Zealand.

Shoup ba doup

It's a true but little-known fact that Salt-N-Pepa's classic song was actually an ode to Donald Shoup. 

Okay, maybe not. But it should have been. 

The National Policy Statement on urban planning bans larger cities from having minimum parking restrictions. The Shoupistas have conquered New Zealand. 

It is excellent news; congratulations in particular to Julie Anne Genter. 

A snippet:
But the more substantial cost of on-street parking, if council does not meter the spaces, is the congestion caused as people drive around looking for free parking. As Seinfeld’s George Costanza put it almost thirty years ago, “Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

That hunt for free parking imposes real costs. Economist Donald Shoup, who has spent the bulk of his long career tracing out the economics of urban parking, found that between 8 and 74 per cent of traffic in congested cities was caused by cruising for parking.

In New York, in the early 1990s, drivers spent between eight and 14 minutes, on average, cruising for parking.

If on-street parking is priced properly, there is no need to cruise for parking. High prices for on-street parking during peak times in popular places encourage people to only park in those places when it is really important, and encourage other people to build parking garages that charge for car storage.

But there is also a worse political economy effect of unpriced on-street parking. When on-street parking has no monetary cost for drivers in places where people want to be, there will always be shortages. Shortages lead councils to force other people to build more parking.
Fun bit: I wanted to cite the excellent George Costanza line about how nobody in his family ever paid for parking - if you applied yourself, you could get it for free. So I dug it up from the online Seinfeld scripts and used it in the column.

Then I wanted to get Shoup's numbers from his classic paper so went and dug that up - to find that he'd opened with the Costanza line as epigraph. 


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