Election 2020: Shane Reti, the man who wants to be health minister

Election 2020: Shane Reti, the man who wants to be health minister

RNZ

Auckland will remain in Level 3 lockdown until midnight Sunday, when the supercity will join the rest of country at Alert Level 2 However, mass gatherings will still be restricted – meaning groups of no more than 10, except for at tangihanga and funerals. Outside the city gatherings of up to 100 are allowed.

Cool. Considered. Gravitas. Integrity. Serious person. These are some of the words used when talking to people about National’s new health spokesman, Shane Reti.

In the flesh, however, Reti, or ‘’Dr Shane’’ as National Party leader Judith Collins has taken to calling him, is enthusiastic, expansive and even a bit manic. He’s got a big brain and wants to do everything. He is a gifted storyteller. And he has obvious ambition to succeed in whatever he turns his mind to.

Should the National Party make an unlikely return to the Treasury benches, Reti will be one of the most powerful men in the country, displacing Labour’s Chris Hipkins. Being health minister is a traditional make-or-break portfolio. The basic problem with health is that there are new and expensive treatments invented every year that far outstrip the money governments have to pay for them.

National’s health spokesman, Dr Shane Reti, thinks New Zealand is probably at about “quarter time” in this pandemic. “I'm sensing a 12 to 18-month tail to this.”

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

National’s health spokesman, Dr Shane Reti, thinks New Zealand is probably at about “quarter time” in this pandemic. “I’m sensing a 12 to 18-month tail to this.”

In New Zealand’s so-called ‘’universal’’ healthcare system, the government rations healthcare according to need. That means, usually, through waiting lists. That makes any health minister’s job politically risky: trying to meet endless expectations with a decidedly limited pot of money.

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Being the minister under Covid will be different: he or she will likely get any sum of money they want, within reason. They will also have unprecedented powers and opportunities to put themselves out in front of voters and be credited with sorting out Covid, should all go well.

The political nature of the health minister will be fundamentally changed. It will be a bigger, more important job.

Reti entered Parliament in 2014 after almost a decade overseas working, and teaching at Harvard, where he originally arrived on a Harkness Fellowship. Before that he worked predominantly as a GP in Northland, with some specialisation in both obstetrics and dermatology.

Reti is clearly excited by healthcare, and is keen to share his experiences of working as a Māori GP in Northland in the 1990s. He recounts heading around the regions, delivering babies. Māori himself, he is also clearly passionate about working in Māori communities and lifting the standards of Māori healthcare.

He rattles off stories, including one about running off the football field to deliver a baby, and the connection he says it still gives him to the community in the Far North.

“I’d already cut my teeth with rural Māori and Māori communities. But I was working in Whangārei delivering babies. And it’s kind of interesting when I go into a business, in Whangārei there’s maybe a 5 per cent chance I’ve delivered one of the staff.”

A classic medico, and as someone who has spent time in the US, he also has an open and honest manner.

“When you start a practice, there’s nothing better to establish a relationship with a woman than to deliver their baby. Once you’ve delivered their baby, you’ve seen each other at your worst. And you will always be loyal to each other. And there will never be any time when it’s ‘OK, we need to do a smear’. OK. We all just think, ‘Oh, heck, we’ve seen each other at our worst, that was nothing’.”

But it is looking to the potential challenges ahead that clearly gets Reti’s mind whirring. He has a whiteboard in his office with a set of lists of all the various parts of New Zealand’s Covid response. He moves them around the board like chess pieces. He jumps up and shows me, letting loose basically a stream of consciousness about how he is looking at the Covid challenge.

“Workflow’s important to me, it really matters. What are the actors – or are the actors a staff member, a traveller crew at one of my borders, who’s the transport? What are the actions? When is the testing and so on? I stand here and pace and think and ponder.”

Now he’s really getting into it.

“I’m a dermatologist by background and I’m really good at taking chaos and putting a structure on it. And so here’s me taking the chaos we’ve got and dropping some sort of structure, the sort of structure so I can say, OK, are we matching that? How are we applying these four levers: PPE, content tracing, testing and social distancing, which are the only four leaders we’ve got.

Reti and his whiteboard of Covid lists.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Reti and his whiteboard of Covid lists.

“OK … that’s our reality. I haven’t put vaccines there, because I’ve described it as a hope to horizon. But if I take that and apply it there, are we doing a good job? That way, I can see some structure of making sure how are we doing?

‘’And it also says to me, what would you do? How would you address all of these issues with each of these actors in each of these places? And so once I’ve given it a framework, I can understand this and that then guides, one, the critique that I can make, and, secondly, the policies that I bring forward as well. That’s how I do that.”

His brain is clearly highly organised, and he has thought long and hard about this. He is also keen to point out that he has experience in this fromhis time in Boston.

Reti is nothing if not enthusiastic, while also being very aware of the challenges Covid poses to New Zealand, both in terms of the direct health impact, but also the wider health impact that a grinding Covid-induced recession might bring.

However, politics is littered with smart people who did not understand how to get votes or exercise authority and power.

Being health minister in these circumstances is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop these, and Reti knows it.

“Really, unbelievable! I mean, I’ve chatted with Ashley [Bloomfield] about this … We are in a position to make policy that will have some impact and influence on that.”

“I’ve just wondered myself is this some sense of fate because we also had people in our division in Boston who were doing mathematical modelling of infection, across large mass migrations of people, more specifically the Hajj in Dubai airport … Now, I’m in the middle of this, exactly what we sort of thought about, what I’ve read articles about, suddenly, it’s real, and I can make some sort of difference.”

Retu thinks he could be just the man for the times.

“ … maybe in some strange way of fate I’ve been brought here with a set of skills I got that just might be the right person for the right job at the right place at the right time.”

Reti has three adult children, and a long-term partner. He has a faith, he says, but does not go to church. He was raised Mormon. He loves squash, music and played a bit of football when he was younger. Among his hobbies that really survived were music and squash.

Reti with Opposition leader Judith Collins, centre, Nicola Willis and Paul Goldsmith.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Reti with Opposition leader Judith Collins, centre, Nicola Willis and Paul Goldsmith.

He credits the latter in particular for helping him get recognised at Harvard Medical School. He recalls when a colleague discovered he was No 1 on the Harvard Med squash ladder. “Suddenly, my introduction was no longer. ‘Dr Shane Reti, Harkness Fellow from New Zealand’. It was, ‘Can I introduce Shane Reti, No 1 on the Harvard ladder, physician from New Zealand’. So because I was an expert at something, even though it was my squash racquet, I was allowed inside the group. It was so funny, I would never have expected it.”

The big question for Reti now will be whether or not he makes it to the Treasury benches. To be health minister within six years of becoming an MP would be pretty good going.

But there is a view in some quarters in Wellington that doctors don’t make good health ministers – they are creatures of, and easily captured by, the system.

On current polling, Reti won’t be a minister, but he is seen as likely to keep the shadow health portfolio even if Judith Collins finds herself unemployed. If there is a much-reduced National Party caucus after the election, the party will also be looking much whiter and more male. Reti has been promoted on talent, but being Māori in the National Party is probably helpful right now.

Yet he doesn’t much talk about that; he’s more interested in grappling with Covid intellectually. He thinks New Zealand is probably at about “quarter time” in this pandemic. “I’m sensing a 12 to 18-month tail to this.”

But he worries about yo-yo-ing in and out of lockdowns. “It’ll kill us. It’s too hard. But so how do we finesse that?

“You know, our long-term plan might change as well. Absolutely agree with what we’re doing, but we can’t do third, fourth, fifth, sixth wave.”

Reti also indicates that although elimination is the current strategy, for those in charge, the appetite for risk, and willingness to live with a little Covid, might have to increase.

“So what are the triggers? And at what level do we say ‘we don’t do another of these?’ At what level do we say, reluctantly, ‘OK. And here’s what we do’.’’

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