The answer, epidemiologist and public health physician Sir David Skegg suggests in his compelling book The Health of the People (BWB Texts, 2019), is that politicians focused on personal health services take a short-term view, and ignore the longer-term factors that impact on the health status of the community. That preference for the short-term may be influenced by particular lobby groups – promoting food and alcohol, for example – industries whose interests would be endangered by regulation in the interests of health.
The Health of the People is motivated by concern that a focus on short-term medical services has left New Zealanders with almost no centralised planning and oversight of the kind that would have prevented what occurred in Havelock North in August 2016. In that disaster, 40 percent of residents became seriously ill because of unsafe drinking water, 45 people were hospitalised and at least three people died. While the issue hit the headlines when it occurred, the public learned little about the subsequent Inquiry, which found that the Ministry of Health failed in its duty of enforcing standards to ensure safe drinking water. The findings of the Inquiry were as invisible to the public as the bugs in the water.