Oamaru link to Covid-19 response

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A former Oamaru woman has been a major player in the health team charged with navigating New Zealand through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Keriana Brooking was deputy chief executive of Covid-19 Health System Response, working with director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield.

Dr Bloomfield asked Mrs Brooking to step away from her existing deputy director general role in Health System Improvement and Innovation – a position she had held for six years – and take more of a lead in the Covid response.

“So I’ve been working all the hours of all the days on this very important matter,” Mrs Brooking said.

“We are pleased, but remain vigilant, at where the country finds itself. And everybody should be thanked for that. We all had a part to play.”

Mrs Brooking (nee Te Aho) was born in Oamaru – going to Casa Nova Primary School where her mother taught, then Oamaru Intermediate and St Kevin’s College.

Her first job out of school was at the Oamaru branch of the Inland Revenue Department, before she moved to Palmerston North at age 19, where her mother’s family originated.

She remained with Inland Revenue until 2001, when a move to Gisborne with her husband, Jack, also meant a career move to the newly formed Tairawhiti District Health Board (now Hauora Tairawhiti).

Leading in to the Level 4 lockdown, Mrs Brooking said she was more uncertain than scared about what lay ahead.

“Whenever there’s something new, you do have to look around to see if anyone is experiencing the same thing.

“There were countries who started in the place that we had started that had just escalated in ways that were very alarming. And then there were countries that had started where we had started, and while numbers had increased, they’d also managed it and were managing to drive the numbers down.

“So the uncertainty of whether we were option A or option B was probably the worrying bit. And, I must admit, I spent a lot of my down time thinking about all that needed to be done and what more could be done.”

Part of Mrs Brooking’s job was doing a lot of the preparation work for Dr Bloomfield.

“He was clearly our front person and he needed to be well-supported for that very important role that he played. A lot of the policy work was brand new, and the situation was intense,” she said.

“Every day we were having to work with very bright people around what the right option would be on any particular problemĀ  – what would make the most sense to the most people.

“You have to legally be doing the right thing. You have to be ethically doing the right thing. You need to be clear, so it’s easy to communicate. And you have to be able to actually operationally do it – that you’re not doing something that’s overly expensive. And you’ve got to pick things that people can comply with.”

To have a government that was receptive to guidance from the health team was something she was grateful for.

“But also a country that was receptive, you know? I think everybody leaned in.”

Clear communication was incredibly important in dealing with the public during this time, but also being prepared to listen, she said.

“You have to allow people the opportunity to express things in the way in which they are doing it, which sometimes can be from a place of distress. But that’s all OK, because a lot of experiences in health are like that, so I had a good background to be able to respond.”

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the move from alert Level 4 to Level 3, Mrs Brooking was part of a large group from all government departments watching on screen from behind the scenes.

She received a text from her father, Sonny Brown, in Oamaru, saying “Good decision daughter, well done”.

“I let everybody know that my dad said we did a good job.”

She said her parents were pretty proud of her accomplishments.

“They’re good folks.”

Mrs Brooking has another month in Wellington at the Ministry of Health, and then a break, during which she and her husband will move so she can take up a new post as the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board chief executive, starting on October 5.

That was a challenge she was looking forward to.

“Being able to go back to an operational role is the thing I look forward to.

“It’s 6000 staff, which will be largest group of staff I’ve led, so there’ll be a challenge there. Hawke’s Bay geographically and weather-wise we really love. And being out and about in the community is something that really appeals.”