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Chris Trotter looks at what happens when 'light-handed regulation' turns out to mean 'no regulation at all'

Chris Trotter looks at what happens when 'light-handed regulation' turns out to mean 'no regulation at all'
Image: Flickr.

By Chris Trotter*

“Light-handed regulation,” it was one of those terms we first began to hear in the late-1980s. It stands alongside all those other catch-phrases that helped to define the contours of the new “free” market: consumer choice; labour market flexibility; provider capture; efficient and effective governance; open and transparent administration. Every revolution ushers in its own new vocabulary: Roger Douglas’s and Ruth Richardson’s proved to be no exception.

The problem with this sort of shorthand (and it may actually be a feature not a bug) is that it very quickly persuades us to stop thinking about what it describes. This is largely because the terms almost always incorporate words that are bound to trigger either strongly positive or strongly negative emotions. Who isn’t in favour of choice, flexibility, openness, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness? Who doesn’t bristle at the idea of “capture”. And who, when presented with the prospect of “light-handed” regulation, doesn’t immediately think how much better that will be than “heavy-handed” regulation. Nobody responds well to heavy-handedness.

The way these loaded expressions skew our thinking should long ago have caused us to interrogate them more closely. That we didn’t do this, preferring instead to treat them as self-evident truths, suggests they were communicating considerably more than a single message. Taken together, what all these catch-phrases, slogans, buzzwords – call them what you will – promoted, was a world in which the sovereign individual reigned supreme and unconfined. The implied contrast was always with the dreary, heavy-handed and overprotected post-war world from which bold, creative and energetic individuals were now being invited to step out into freedom.

The Fourth Labour Government which unleashed the “Rogernomics” revolution was enormously fortunate to march into office over the political corpse of Rob Muldoon. When it came to heavy-handed over-protectors of the institutions and ideas of the post-war world, Muldoon was straight out of Central Casting. During the decade he dominated New Zealand politics (1974-1984) Muldoon managed to alienate just about every major interest group in the country. Younger New Zealanders, in particular loathed National’s populist prime minister. It was Muldoon, after all, who made sure the Springbok Tour went ahead, and who kept on demonstrating his fealty to the Anzus alliance by inviting nuclear-powered (and probably armed) US warship into New Zealand ports.

The mad restrictions of Muldoon’s “bloated bureaucracy” (parodied so effectively by playwright Roger Hall in “Glide Time”) were holding New Zealand back – away with them! The sheer number of Quasi-autonomous Government Organisations – Quangos – prompted the new Labour Government to announce that it was embarking upon a “Great Quango Hunt” to cull the herd. What fun!

Of course a closer reading of Hall’s famous play reveals a cast of characters who, beneath their woolly pullovers and cardigans, actually turn out to be a group of decent and conscientious New Zealanders. Bureaucracies are always easy to ridicule (the present British prime minister, Boris Johnson, made his name doing just that to the cumbersome bureaucracy of the European Union) but Hall’s drama does not suggest that the state sector should be savaged in the way it was by Rogernomics. Indeed, if “Glide Time” contains any “ideological” message at all, it is that New Zealand needs a better, not a smaller, public service.

After the week New Zealand has just experienced, a better public service sounds like a very good idea! The 35 years of “light-handed” regulation this country has endured since 1984 have been exposed as a period during which the ability to devise and enforce government regulations has almost entirely atrophied. The rules and protocols established by the Ministry of Health to protect New Zealanders from the Covid-19 Pandemic may have looked good on paper, but at the cutting edge of the crisis, where people entering the country encounter the officials responsible for implementing those rules and protocols, the situation has bordered on the farcical.

Not only were the employees of the Ministry of Health and their various contractors almost pathologically unwilling to behave in a heavy-handed fashion, but many of the people sent into managed isolation/quarantine simply couldn’t or wouldn’t accept that anybody – least of all an overbearing state – had any right to tell them what to do, or to limit their freedom in any way.

Self-interest has always been the underlying ethos of light-handed regulation. People and firms can be trusted to follow the rules, it was argued, because not following them would clearly be counter-productive to their interests. This is, of course, a truly heroic assumption. It simply ignores the problems caused by individuals who misperceive of their own interests. Likewise, it fails to account for those who cynically exploit the willingness of others to obey the rules by routinely flouting them for personal advantage – the so-called “free-rider” problem.

Combined with the detection of new Covid-19 cases, this chaos at the border has dealt a tremendous blow to the voters’ trust and confidence in the Jacinda Ardern-led coalition government. The sacrifices made – and about to be made – by tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders for the “team of 5 million” have suddenly been thrown into doubt. Our world-beating success has been exposed as potentially fraudulent to an international audience positively pulsing with schadenfreude. That Labour and its leader will not take a massive hit from all this is inconceivable.

Perhaps the only positive development to come out of this bureaucratic and public relations debacle has been the deployment of NZ Defence Force personnel to stiffen the resolve of the bureaucrats at our border. Those New Zealanders who looked on in despair as Cave Creek, the Leaky Homes Fiasco, Pike River, and all the other examples of the moral, legal and institutional failure associated with light-handed regulation remained unaddressed, can now draw comfort from the fact that heavy-handedness appears to be making a come-back. What does it tell us about the state of our state, however, that the only people on the public payroll who can still be relied upon to issue and obey orders are the military?

For all their alleged greyness and torpor, the public servants of 35 years ago understood the centrality of a professional and dedicated public service to the nation’s safety and well-being. They accepted that the temporary and sectional interests of New Zealand must remain the responsibility of its politicians and political parties; but they also believed strongly that the permanent and national interests of the country should be the responsibility of its public service. The tragedy of the past 35 years is that terms like “light-handed regulation” have obscured the brutal truth that a “free” market can endure only while its acolytes remain in control of the institutions and processes that keep it free – most especially the public service.

Heavy hands defend the interests of ordinary people. Light hands indicate a politicised bureaucracy working for the big end of town. For the financial and commercial interests who kicked-off the free market revolution 35 years ago, however, the preferred solution and the ultimate goal will always be:

“Look Ma! – No hands!”

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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Brilliant article, one of his best.


agree the sob stories in the papers about waaa I have to do quarantine and the food is horrible or I cant get sky etc, bet the homeless guy enjoyed his free stay good on him.
they should be so lucky and grateful they have made it to a safe country with what is happening overseas and two weeks looked after is better than want many of us enjoyed in level 4

Lol "safety". If you are fit enough to be travelling you have more chance of dying in a car accident.

Time to ease up on the coronaphobia.


If you are fit enough to be travelling you have more chance of dying in a car accident.

Especially if you're travelling in a country with a health system currently overwhelmed with corona virus cases.

The made up homeless guy story spun for political points?


That's precisely what I was thinking as I was reading it. Of course, this will have the libertarians foaming at the mouth. In their one-eyed view of the world, they want to be free of cumbersome government regulations-but only when it suits them. Then they want protected from unfair competition and often from any competition. They want to pay as little tax as they can get away with, but of course, they want decent roads, schools, sewage services, clean water, healthcare, police and fire services and all the other attributes of a decent society.

Yes and no, but at the same time you have to recognise that within that want list of decent roads, schools, sewage and other services etc etc, what any good citizen, libertarian or not, really deserves is delivery of those basic essentials with priority over vainglorious projects and unaccountable squandering of other people’s money by those with access to the public purse.

Bang on!


Proposing light handed regulation is complicit in MOH's C19 administration failure suits Trotters ideological position but is a fanciful leap. The evidence points to elemental failure to follow simple process.

Exactly. The culprit is nine time out of ten a lack of hard training and the unintelligent and/or egotistical application to managing the rules & regulations.

It's indicative of the whole hierarchy though. If the Minister of Health can't follow the rules, why would you expect anyone subservient to said Minister to. Heck even Bloomfield and Ardern were getting photo ops less than 1m apart from complete strangers.

I almost choked on this one; "It simply ignores the problems caused by individuals who misperceive of their own interests." the operative word - "misperceive". What he means is those who see their self interests as not aligning with those of society as a whole, or the Government's. Indeed self interests are entirely a matter of perception in society today. None of us can assume that we are universally aligned on "self-interests", which is why we need balanced Government regulation. Here's hoping! But yes - very good piece. I can't wait for then ensuing debate.


Blimey, there wasn’t anything light handed about EQC’s punitive, bullying and destructive handling of Canterbury EQ claimants. Just read Dame Cartwright’s report. Bureaucracy is one of this country’s greatest impediments as it too regularly places unbridled and unchecked power into the hand of an individual or a cluster of them. A bureaucracy that is unaccountable, opinionated and self serving is a threat to democracy and society. All authority, no responsibility, too many brown cardigans at it just like that.

That is a good example of UNbalanced regulation. The blunt identification of the degree of ripoff that insurance has become, and the then Government not wanting to take any action that recognised the rights of the people (unless of course you were rich and powerful). This really hasn't changed, with bugger all effective insurance regulation, rate (premiums) skyrocketing as they try to recoup losses that were really about their mismanagement and abuse of their industry and clients.

No. "misperceive" in this context means that these people do not know their own self interest. They do not know what is good for them. Classic socialist talk. Force people to what I think is right for them. I am happy to force capitalists to do what is right for society, but don't pretend it is good for themselves. Any company will be more profitable for it's shareholders if they have corrupt connections with suppliers, customers, and government regulators, but that is not what we want them to do. We want them to behave in a certain manner because it is good for society, in spite of it not being good for them. But we don't want our governments to ram what they think is good for us down our throats. We will only let them wreck our economy and our whole lives a bit, and only for certain reasons. And not very often.

But if you asked them Sit, they would say they DO know their self interest. We might argue that it is not good for them, or us, but they might not care (ask a 'P' addict if taking the drug is good for them).

The thing about democracies is that prospective Governments get to put their view of what the 'collective self interest' is to the population for voting on. The problem with this is that our political parties corrupt this process completely, and once voted in, there is no way to hold them to account.

Hi Chris T, how about :

Look Ma! – No legs!”

Still Economy is running and stock / House prices making everyday high.

My anecdotal experience over the past week is that public has noticed the level of incompetence that was required for this occur. They can understand that the required tests were not done and symptoms were ignored, while at the same time our politicians were insisting the border was water tight.

They have just over 6 months to get the system up to standard to safely quarantine thousands of international students if they want to let them in. I don't want to take this risk, I have low trust in the system and zero trust that the politicians fronting for the camera have any idea whats actually happening at the border. Letting in large numbers of young or mildly symptomatic students with incentives to hide their symptoms into large lecture halls is a recipe for disaster, one missed case and we are all back at level 4. I would think the cost for a proper quarantine would be similar to prison incarceration ($1000 a day) are they going to pass this on?

What words describe the fed permitting 0% fractional reserve for the banks? What are fractional reserve levels for nz banks?

What happened was always bound to happen. We were never that good, even though they were telling us we were. We were lucky. And we are lucky. But we were never that good. Sorry.


The last few weeks have shown our (belated, despite what spin-masters would have you believe) Covid19 response to have been an incredible run of luck, as opposed to careful planning and execution by a skilled and disciplined public sector.

Inevitably, our 'golden run' doesn't hold up under the weight of statistics, and our 'hot streak' has ended with a thumping dose of reality, and all we have to show for it is a $100b invoice.

As my expat colleagues so often declare, usually out of exasperation....'NZ is the home of the counterproductive shortcut' Meaning, if we can take a shortcut, well thought out or otherwise we do. Kiwis HATE regulation and see it as a form of oppression. If avoiding a regulation will help save a few bucks inthe short term we'll do it, even if it means paying 3 times the price for remediation of the shortcuts impacts 6 months later.
Who knows if the staff manning the quarantine were medically qualified or not? For all we know they could be labourhire workers masqerading as security staff and have absolutely no medical training at all?

I know of agency nurses who worked in the quarantine hotels in Christchurch over lockdown. The problem was probably a lack of team work, systems and leaderships. I am not really convinced that Megan Woods, the military and MBIE will be much better than the ad hoc group of public health staff assembled by the all of government team.
I think NZ should treat quarantine hotels like psychiatric hospitals. Travelers are detained there under legislation -public health legislation -so ultimately public health officials are in charge. Hospital systems of admission, transfer, discharge etc should be used. Charge nurses should manage each facility/hotel. Psychiatric nurses should be used and military personal should be their 'health care assistants'. Psychiatric nurses have enough medical training to understand modes of infection, contact precautions, social distancing etc. Psychiatric nurses know how to impose boundaries -they can say no. They are naturally suspicious. they are used to assessing how 'reality based' peoples statements and behaviour is.
Over time this would create a well-oiled public health disease quarantine service -hopefully quickly. A service that can find the right balance between 'heavy handed' public protection and 'light handed' individual rights.
P.S I am a registered nurse having worked in psychiatry since the 90s.

'The home of the counterproductive shortcut'. Classic. And quite true.

What is curious in this article on government, is that there is not one mention of the devastating impacts of the 'light government touch' on jobs. The gutting of our jobs, replaced with a few minimum wage part time jobs that equate more to a modern form of slavery than a decent living, which has significant consequences that will likely take generations to fix.

Jobs will not come back to NZ until the labour plus transport costs of foreign production are higher than doing the same in NZ. Two ways for this to happen. Their internal costs go up, or we slip duties and tariffs on, in the time honoured manner. As we did with all manner of stuff in the past. Funny thing, after Rogernomics, and all the car assembly plants shut down, we have always had full employment, and loads of foreigners on visas to do lots of jobs.

The light government touch on government jobs in particular. Curled up in that too has been the rise and the rise of the consultant. Inevitably reporting under carte blanche and indemnity, lucratively paid, selected according to best chance of said desired outcome, can be put to blame if things go awry without consequences.

For the responsible citizen trying to navigate their way through shifting sands (liquifying sands is probably a more apt analogy) in deciding who is the best party to govern NZ, I can't help feeling that the best solution would be a benevolent and very competent dictator. Has history ever had one?
I count myself among those who haven't any set party that exclusively aligns with their self-interests. I won't know until two minutes before I cast my vote which party I will vote for. In political parlance I am a set-in-concrete swing voter. I recognize the good and the bad in all the parties:
Unless you happened to derive from the English nobility and are descended from a difficult young person who was sent by a despairing noble family to NZ as a 'remittance man' (and they were mainly men) with a comfortable allowance, then every one of us has benefited from the great Labour Party reforms from the 1930s onwards ; we simply wouldn't have our relatively comfortable current lifestyle otherwise. There would still have been a small wealthy class but the rest of us would have a pretty miserable existence. John Key and Bob Jones, the billionaire property investor, were both brought up in Labour government-created state houses.
Yet, there needs to be a party that supports small business, and that has historically been the National party. (But the policies of both these parties have been more closely aligning in recent decades) And, as I've been a small business man for most of my working life and made a reasonably good fist of it, I feel some gratitude to National. I would never have cut it as a civil servant.
So, come an election, I agonise over who to vote for.

Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore comes close, although there are a few detractors (as there always will be). But few can argue the collective good he achieved.

Singapore is essentially a tax haven. For instance Visa NZ and Mastercard NZ pay no tax here in NZ as they have a deal to pay 4% in Singapore. Doing the whole "We're paying for the IP held by our Singapore parent..." or similar rort. This has been reported here at

Sheeple indeed

All regulation should be subject to proportionate regulatory impact cost/benefit assessment.
Which includes assessing a range of options before coming down to the recommended option.
Ideally the recommended option will have a net total welfare gain.
Its the only way to provide an evidence base for what is the best option and makes it transparent if government (central, regional, local) does not choose that option

This happens already. We have robust systems in place to flesh these matters out, including select committee submission processes. Things don't just get plucked out of the air and then not tested. We might not always like what happens, but at least there is some form of regulatory impact assessment that takes place. If you've ever submitted on legislation changes you'd know this.

It is disingenuous to use the word "light handed regulation" to attack neo-liberalism instead of the more accurate word "incompetent regulation" by the state.
I am not trying to defend neo-liberalism but i find it strange that supports of state blame something that is very directly and obviously a state's problem (incompetency to regulate) to neo-liberalism. He, himself points out the horrendous state of NZ in 1970s and 1980s when there was no neo liberalism but plenty of incompetent regulators. Looking back at 60s, 70s, 80s,90s,21st etc, there have been a plethora of different policies, social and economic theories, politics etc at play but there is one constant in all these bad times: regulators and their incompetency.
Off course good public service is great (as the world good already implies) the challenge is that public service is rarely good. To counter myself i say that efficient market is great, but for obvious reasons we rarely (if ever) gonna have efficient markets.

The neo-liberal view that markets fix everything drives the lack of legislative tools available to regulators. Regulators are only as good as the tools, the $$ and the independence you give them. It's only since we've had some decent telco regulation that I can choose where to buy my phone, what phone brand to buy and not have to mortgage my home to run it.

Mmm, but bad regulation predates neo-liberalism. You may even argue that neo-liberalism became a thing because too much legislative tools did not achieve anything meaningful. Incompetent legislation predates neo-liberalism and in fact might have been a contributing factors that "market solutions" were so easy to sell to people. They could see with their own eyes that heavy handed regulation is disastrous.
As I said, I am not defending neo-liberalism, but lets not pretend that the world was the Garden of Eden before the shifty politicians took a bite of the neo-liberalism apple and therefore we were thrown out and we are now struggling to go back to the lost paradise. Large, ineffective, clueless governments with so much power and every legislative tools at their disposals have been tried and failed. The then touted solution of market is the answer is now proven ineffective too. But lets not get all nostalgic for the past.

NZ's recent past is riddled with light handed regulatory disasters that have cost lives and $billions. In no particular order: Pike River (self regulation of safety); Telecom privatization (no price regulation); Finance company collapses (poor supervision, governance, disclosure); Rail privatization (no regulation around asset investment/maintenance); leaky buildings (lax product and building standards). I'm sure I've missed a few. Well-funded, smart, sensible, independent regulators would likely have prevented all of that.

"Well-funded, smart, sensible, independent regulators". The only attribute that you can control is "well-funded" all other ones you can only wish for and you are very unlikely to have them. Actually, I am wrong, ask any regulator in the history of the world that considered themselves "well-funded".
I am not disagreeing with you, just saying that a regulator you describe is sort of like the Pluto's philosopher king, sounds amazing but you are very unlikely to have anything like it in the real world.

Mo: perhaps the most spectacular 'light-handed disaster' was the collapse of the CTV building during the Christchurch earthquake with its huge death toll. It's unbelievable that the engineering firm that submitted the unorthodox plans with their fragile 'Meccano-like' L-connections between the beams and the columns, the project manager from South Africa with the fraudulent stolen engineering qualifications, the unnamed council engineer/s who approved the plans, the fact that no proper inspection of the building was done after the first quake...........nobody at all deemed responsible........all swept under the carpet as light-handed regulation I guess.

The thing that's never mentioned in the Pike River disaster was that some of the mine inspectors, some of whom had relatives that were killed, must have known that the mine was unsafe and they couldn't help but have been aware of the 'cover-up' regarding the unsafe conditions, and yet they were never held to account......I suppose it was not done because to do so would be deemed too harsh where family members had been killed.

Pike River was at base a Gubmint-enforced faulty design, and any regulatory 'failure' was well downstream of that.

  1. The seam at PRCC sloped upwards, through known-to-be-gassy coal (it's substantially the same as coal found at Brunner and Strongman - both famous historic disasters).
  2. This should have placed a very high design emphasis on excellent mine ventilation.
  3. DoC controls both the surface over the seam (Conservation land) and the outcropping face of the seam (the escarpment is in Paparoa National Park).
  4. A sensible ventilation plan would have been to allow either or both of vertical vents up to surface through overburden, and vents right along the top of the seam straight out to the escarpment. Both would be natural ventilation (methane is lighter than air, and both sets of vents would vent up). As mine roads were driven, they could have been vented up and out, with less mechanical assistance needed and much greater margins of safety.
  5. DoC would allow only one vent hole in its precious Conservation Estate, and would not even consider a vent on the escarpment above the seam.
  6. The one vent allowed was at the lowest point of the coal seam (the least likely place to accumulate and vent methane without yuge mechanical assistance).
  7. This was an inherently flawed design (the Royal Commission could find only one other similar design across the globe, and IIRC That went Boom, too)
  8. It was, in short, an accident waiting to happen, from a design forced by Gubmint intransigence to be fatally deficient.
  9. To be sure, mine management failures were also there. But managing a lemon tends to produce a bitter result regardless.

Tks WM. Good story or bad story, it’s always right to learn of facts revealing the truth rather than the common opposite.

Well Chris , in plain English speak expressing what I think you are saying , how can career politicians manage career beauricrats ?
The answer is never .
In the absence of any real life experience outside of the protected walls of academic achievement , where they all wait for their opportunity to subject the general population to their own view of what they think will work , they all lack real world practical experience and are out of touch with the reality of what is involved in being successful and compitant in the private sector.
Have you ever heard of a company where the CEO says he or she is not responsible for a middle management fk up ?
Well that's what the mighty hot air balloon of jacindamania is asking us to believe and accept .
Looks like the hot air balloon is losing altitude .....

A mass of self deluding porkies from Chris Trotter.
"Gliding on" massively continues. Except the drones wear stylish black, greenstone and drink Pinot.
He conflates better government with bigger government.
He confuses regulation with hands on participation.
I actually believe in strong rules. But thats having a referee and level playing field. NOT, the referee running with the ball.
Civil servants? We could get rid of most. The civil service in the last week seems to be the problem. Even the politicians do better by comparison.
Gliding on? Getting rid of 90% of the drones would end the nonsense. As somebody sais here on linkedin "there was always a lot to do at the council. Very busy. But it never actually produced anything"

stylish black?! and there I was thinking uniform of the day was still brown cardigans. black and tans next then?

The regulation theory is like free markets, complete nonsense.
Regulation in real terms is set by the controlling corporate, or at local level, regulation is synonymous with revenue stream.
Both have the interests of people at heart, it's simply those people are not the majority, and none of the regulatory changes are made "for the greater good".

Excellent description of poor or near no leadership.. but blame the "system"
At L4 Jacinda had the military on standby.. and we had illegally manned checkpoints/ road blocks...and let it continue.. A headache for the future that one. Soft leadership.
Jacinda told us how well we where doing when we saw supermarkets and customers in areas that where of most risk to damage simply ignoring the "guidelines".. And we saw this happening. Not only that when reported , inspected was still let go.. no "Either conform now or close"
NZ free of Covid was not achieved, it happened simply by luck.. and even now luck it is being maintained.
Jacinda said it was a "war"
Attitudes come from the top. That attitude is true leadership, it determines how ppl implement and react to systems. Soft leadership it is the "system that fails" Rather than the administration of that system.
We see it in car accidents.. " car ran off the road" . Cars, tools are inanimate objects that only do what we tell them. The driver put the car around the cnr too fast.
We have not seen great leadership. We have seen a PM qualified in communication and PR, able to say the right thing at the right time, to look good... Be it CHCH or covid and other things Both in the Gun laws and from road blocks to isolation lack hugely in real substance.

Yes, New Public Management means and meant, that governments were not to be allowed to do what they were elected to do. So, not worth voting. Public Health systems undermined for 35 years across OECD, except Germany of course. Minister have been sat on top of a structure with v poorly operating arms or none at all, due exactly to all the intervening layers of bloody Quangos and contracted out privatised agencies who we are told have "operational" control. If so, what is the point of democracy and what happens to any concept of accountability. Finally, note that all this intervening spaghetti costs more than the old system to administer. Brilliant . And of course this will not be mentioned in political debate due to it being a non-political matter! ha

I hate bureaucrats, but there is a need for some of them. For those interested in what happens when you get the likes of Trump in place, listen to the 7 minute rule episode of this podcast by Michael Lewis - the Author of The Big Short and many other finance related books.

It covers how when you put private companies in charge of what are really governmental functions, things can go seriously wrong. And no accountability in the private sector either.

I agree with much that Chris Trotter had to say. BUT, I think the bureaucrats at Auckland Council missed the memo about light handed regulation when it comes to planning issues...

Interesting the lastest spin from Bloomfield blaming a lack of communication on the protocols not being followed by front line staff re non testing .
So we have 63% of over 2000 people released from isolation after June 9 not tested , and 51 released early for compassionate grounds not tested , and at first it was the systems fault and now it's communication failure , yet Ashley , Jacinda and David haven't addressed what caused those failures or given us any confidence this won't happen again , really and they can't see the problem.
There is a risk of people being infectious and not showing any symptoms , just like the young couple and their infant who were picked up just prior to release from quarantine , and this govt keeps deflecting and being evasive around what the real concerns are .
Go figure , the team of 5 million aren't devoid of brain cells, cos the testing before leaving was introduced when we moved to level1 to prevent asymptomatic cases making their way into our communities undetected

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