12 Aug 2021

Strict lockdown 'right approach' to Delta variant - Covid-19 modeller

8:32 am on 12 August 2021

The government is warning it may take just one community case of Covid-19 for the country to move into another alert level 4 lockdown.

Chris Hipkins

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the world won't return to normal, rather there will be a "new normal". Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It is urging New Zealanders to expect, and prepare for, another lockdown ahead of its official response to a new report on reopening the country's borders this morning.

The report, compiled by an expert group led by Sir David Skegg, predicts New Zealand is likely to experience an outbreak of the Delta variant, similar to the one seen in Sydney.

Yesterday, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins foreshadowed the government's intention to go harder and faster with lockdowns if Covid-19 is found in the community.

"Previously where the virus was taking longer to spread, the contact tracing process could get ahead of it. Now we know from the experience across the Tasman that if you don't get ahead of it very quickly then it becomes very, very hard to get ahead of it without a prolonged period of restriction."

University of Canterbury professor, Michael Plank

Professor Michael Plank Photo: Supplied.

University of Canterbury Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said this approach was entirely responsible to protect New Zealand from a variant that was twice as infectious as the original strain of Covid-19.

"I absolutely agree this is is the right approach. You can see from what's happening in Sydney at the moment, that if you let this Delta variant get away from you, you get into a very, very difficult situation. So it's definitely preferable to have a fast, short and strict lockdown that might last for a week than to risk losing control of the virus and potentially having a lockdown that drags on for several weeks or months."

Sir David Skegg's advisory group is adamant border restrictions must remain in place until the vaccine roll-out is complete.

However what 'complete' looks like is unknown; the group did not offer a vaccine target and Hipkins said he does not want one.

"I'm not willing to settle for anything other than everybody who is eligible to get a vaccine, taking up the opportunity to get a vaccine. And that is what all of the epidemiological community are recommending as well, that setting a target anything lower than everybody getting the vaccine is setting yourself up to not be successful and we don't want to do that."

The government is considering recalibrating its approach to vaccinations however, to prioritise the numbers of those who have had their first dose over those who are fully inoculated.

This follows emerging evidence a longer time period between the first and second doses may increase the body's immune system response to the virus.

In the meantime, New Zealanders can expect to see more mask use and mandatory QR code scanning in the coming weeks, as Cabinet works through the finer details of any changes.

Hipkins drew on a 9/11 analogy when reassuring New Zealanders about these uncertain times.

"The world didn't just return to normal after September the 11th, it returned to a new normal and we got used to that and life started to feel normal, but it looked a little bit different to the way it was before and I think that a similar thing will happen with Covid-19.

"There will be a new normal and we will get used to that and we will have more freedom and things will feel more normal, but we don't yet quite know exactly what the road to that is, but we are going to set out some thinking on that tomorrow."

The government will begin giving its official response to the advice put forward by the advisory group at its 'Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World' forum this morning.

Hospitality and retail industry respond to report

Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois told Morning Report any level of change is challenging and puts pressure on hospitality businesses.

But she says the association is open to mandatory mask use at certain levels if it means being able to operate under less restrictive measures.

"Around 60 percent of our members are supportive of mandatory mask wearing."

Chief executive of Retail NZ Greg Harford said with everyone desperate to avoid a hard lockdown, he believes Retail NZ members would be open to this too.

"Having more use of the QR code and having masks be more common place is a good thing if it helps keep businesses open."

But Harford said the retail industry is cautious around where the responsibility of enforcement lies and says it's important that there are robust processes in place to deal with non-compliance.

On the topic of the border reopening, Harford says from a business perspective, it's important retailers can travel and visit suppliers and factories.

"That said, it's clearly impractical right now to open borders but I think we really do need to see ... a roadmap to allow a gradual opening to safe destinations and to vaccinated travellers."

In the hospitality industry there's wide range of opinions regarding the reopening of the border, Bidois said.

Only 10 percent of Restaurant Association members believe the border should be open now, with 20 percent wanting the border open to people who are vaccinated. Thirty percent want borders open when there is a higher vaccination rate in the country and 15 percent think borders should remain closed until the pandemic is under control.

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