OPINION: And now we wait. As with the last time New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown, it’s now a waiting game to see if the testers and contact tracers get on top of the spread of the Delta strain of coronavirus.
Or at least we all hope that’s what will happen. There is one plan to deal with Covid-19 in New Zealand, and that plan is elimination. The working definition given is that it’s ”zero tolerance for new cases”.
The strategy has evolved since the first lockdown last year. It is now: keep the virus out until the population has been vaccinated and then see what’s next.
Last week we all got a flavour of what might be next and how New Zealand might open up, but the fact that it is trying to combine both elimination and a staged reopening of the border really begged more questions than answers.
The Delta variant will be a serious challenge to the Government’s strategy, and leaves a whole host of unanswered questions about what happens if Covid cannot, once again, be eliminated.
The Government, to its credit, has responded as quickly as possible to give the best chance of nipping this outbreak in the bud. Hopefully it works. But one thing that all Australian states have learnt from the Delta strain is that it is very hard to purge it from the community – partly because the odds of having a 100 per cent transmission rate within the household are very high.
Even in a lockdown, when everyone in the household catches it and one person heads to the supermarket before they are crook, the chance of it lingering around gets higher. That’s Delta.
This lockdown will also undoubtedly have a positive effect on the vaccine programme. In the past few weeks, supplies have finally got to a point where the previously sluggish programme can be opened up for everyone from September 1.
There are lots of reasons why people don’t get around to being vaccinated: a bit worried, can’t be bothered, haven’t booked in, there’s no Covid here, and so forth.
This outbreak will renew the immediate fear of you or your loved ones catching the disease, which will be brought to front of mind. It will also likely tickle people’s self-interest that the best way of preventing lockdowns is for everyone who can to get vaccinated. It could just be the thing that really drives a high take-up rate. All going well, restrictions will be starting to ease when the general population is eligible for a vaccine.
While director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health is ready to surge vaccines into any given area or population if needed, so far the ministry is keen to stick to the plan it has.
But what if this strategy isn’t successful? Then it becomes a whole new ball game, both politically and practically. For Jacinda Ardern’s Government, which has staked so much of its credibility on crushing Covid, it would be a big blow.
A failure to eliminate the virus would most likely mean a continued level of restrictions, and a strategy to suppress the virus to make sure hospitals and ICUs are not overrun.
This, of course, was the policy goal when New Zealand first went into lockdown early last year, but it morphed into an elimination strategy when it became clear elimination might work.
And worryingly, what is clear from the Government’s response so far is that a lot of the problems that existed a year ago still remain. There’s not much more capacity in the health system for Covid patients, we are still primarily using swab testing, resources have been diverted from vaccines to testing (which shows prioritisation, but is also a little bit like robbing Peter to pay Paul). The nurses’ union is reporting shortages of PPE, and nasal swabs are running low in Auckland.
In addition, the locations of interest seem to be coming slowly. In Wellington, despite the public knowing about Friday’s cases for most of the day, there were still no locations provided to the public by 5pm.
Ardern and Bloomfield defended this delay by saying that it takes time to get accurate information so that, for example, time spent at a location or onset of symptoms is accurately remembered. That’s fair enough: memory is fallible, recollections can be flawed.
But one case flew down to Wellington and the others drove, stopping at petrol stations and restaurants on the way. At least some of that information – flights and petrol stations stops, or indeed anything with an electronic record – should at the very least have been easily obtainable and given to the public promptly.
Like everything the Ministry of Health has done since the outbreak of Covid last year, there seems to be haste on some things, and a go-slow on others.
The entire purpose of this lockdown is to chase close contacts and chains of transmission as quickly as possible.
Ardern even said in recent days that, because of the importance of getting on top of this strain, business owners may sometimes read that they are a place of interest before being contacted.
Surely getting even short lists out to the public quickly, bit by bit, is a good idea in this context.
To be fair, this lockdown has come very quickly, and these might just be speed wobbles.
But what was a proactive response on Tuesday now risks being snowed under the avalanche of testing, contacts and places of interest. This was expected. We have been repeatedly told this. The response should reflect that.
New Zealand appears to have learned all the right lessons from New South Wales and the other Australian states. Now we will see if “go hard, go early” is a slogan for all seasons.