Professor Tony Blakely (Hamilton 1980-84), a recent arrival in Melbourne, has emerged as one of Australia’s leading experts on the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Network caught up with him at the end of September, he had received a remarkable 3,500 media mentions since the pandemic started.
That has made him a household name, appearing on TV, radio, newspapers and online news daily, explaining the implications of the pandemic to the Australian public.
And he sums up the experience and the whole year in one word: “extraordinary.”
“I actually found myself in an interesting position because at the beginning of this year many other Australian public health doctors and epidemiologists who could speak up about Covid were on government committees and essentially gagged.”
“And so, I found myself in a unique position, as a new arrival in Australia I could speak quite freely.”
Tony, 53, grew up in Tamahere to a vet father and nurse mother, and attended Tamahere Model School, then Southwell, before arriving at St Paul’s.
He attended University of Canterbury for a year, while deciding whether to do engineering or medicine. He elected medicine and moved to Otago University.
He did three years of clinical medicine then specialised in Public Health medicine; going on to do a PHD in epidemiology which he finished in 2001.
He was successful in getting New Zealand Health Research Council funding and stayed on at Otago University, mainly at the Wellington campus, until January 2019 directing various programmes including a health inequalities research programme.
While still retaining links to Otago, he moved full time to the University of Melbourne in January last year to take up a position around scaling up modelling.
“We were mostly looking at things like reducing salt in bread; putting taxes on sugary drinks and tobacco.… and then along came Covid and we shifted gear.”
He has some interesting comments to make about pandemic preparedness, and comparisons between New Zealand and Australia and the states within it.
“It became clear there were different levels of preparedness. New Zealand was probably in the middle of the pack in terms of preparedness. And then made a rapid and fulsome deviation from common international practice to eliminate this virus rather than just manage it.”
“New South Wales was in a much better position than Victoria as it has slowly whittled away its public health infrastructure. The contact tracing workforce was pretty low and there just wasn’t the vigilance.”
Victoria, by far, has been the worst hit area in Australia recording more than 20,000 cases and 800 deaths.
“So as far at pandemic preparedness goes, it would be New South Wales, New Zealand, Victoria in that order. But New Zealand managed to progress its pandemic response quickly because it is able to exact change quickly with a single Parliamentary system.”
Tony has been working from his Mont Albert, Melbourne home since March, while parts of Victoria have been in various forms of lockdown. “I am completely over it personally, but professionally, I know that is what we should be doing.”
The situation is now much more manageable. “We are on a good trajectory; the numbers have come down a lot faster than me and many other experts expected a month ago.”
“The numbers have been coming down perfectly in line with the Year 12 mathematics exponential curve. It has been coming down by the same per cent each day so behaving itself mathematically.”
“We may get very lucky and join New Zealand in elimination status, we just don’t know.”
Tony says it has been a challenging environment to maintain one’s academic independence, especially when each side of the political divide has been using various statements by experts to hammer the other side.
“I am committed to providing information to the public and to being an explainer. It is a pretty heated environment, but much better to be involved, than not involved.”
Tony has been at the heart of robust public debate on this side of the Tasman before, having previously gone head to head with powerful tobacco companies which were being represented by Sir Geoffrey Palmer.
A keen mountain biker and road cyclist, Tony enjoys the sport when he returns to visit his parents who live in the Rotorua lakes area.
Tony has three children. The oldest two have studied Engineering, and the youngest is in her final year of high school in Wellington.
Tony talks about some of the ‘fantastic teaching’ he had going through St Paul’s including the same teachers right through the junior and senior schools for the science and maths subjects. He caught up with some staff and former classmates at the Tihoi reunion last year.
There were other formative experiences including being Chair of the ‘70s club’ a cultural club which used to bring in outside speakers.
As part of this group, he visited Eva Rickard at her home in Raglan, overlooking the airfield, hearing how she became radicalised.
“As a white county boy, meeting someone like Eva Rickard was very formative and in part led me on to do health inequalities research.”
Through this group he also met former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
“She came along and gave a talk when I was in seventh form and I hosted her and that left quite a memory.”
Tony says he has met Helen Clark quite a few times since then and worked for many years in public health research with her husband Peter Davis – and reconnected with Andrew Sporle (Hamilton, 1979-1983) who also worked with Peter.