25 Aug 2021

Michael Baker: Covid-19 strategy will allow NZ to 'choose our future'

11:25 am on 25 August 2021

New Zealand's Covid-19 strategy puts the country in a good position amid uncertainty of how the virus will evolve, epidemiologist Michael Baker says.

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University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Baker told Morning Report he was optimistic New Zealand will get on top of this outbreak and there will be evidence for that this week.

"If we're looking ahead to maybe next year, I'm not sure what the optimal strategy would be.

"Elimination has definitely been the optimal strategy up to now by every indicator we can use.

Baker said the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's comments that "Covid-zero" is highly unlikely and case numbers were "not the whole story" were aimed at a domestic political opponents.

"Scott Morrison's audience in many cases are some of the other states and territories in Australia where they absolutely committed to keeping this virus out at the moment.

"It's largely a political statement, and elimination is a political choice. It's technically possible, it's being achieved across the region, I'm confident it will be achieved again in New Zealand.

"His predominant audience is actually a domestic audience in Australia of people who disagree with him."

New Zealand should stay the course on elimination for the medium term, until there is have high vaccine coverage, he said.

"Then I think we will be in a good position to choose our future.

'Grim scenarios' on viral evolution

"We don't know where the pandemic is going to be going in the next three months. There are some grim scenarios based on continuing viral evolution.

"I think New Zealand's in a very good position if we're keeping our options open in terms of this combination of vaccination and public health measures to give us the best possible outcome for New Zealanders."

Baker said until more of the people exposed before lockdown are tested, the extent and peak of the outbreak would not be known.

"What we should be really looking for now is evidence of further transmission.

"We will see people who are infected in households - household contacts of these cases - but the real thing to look at is people infected in the community, if that's still occurring."

Though we have a good lockdown, there are "weak points" such as essential workers, he said.

The fully-vaccinated Middlemore healthcare worker who has tested positive was doing all the right things, wearing PPE, and having regular testing, he said, and they are not considered a source of infection for the setting they're in at the moment.

Healthcare workers are very conscious they are a more exposed group.

The group to focus on are people breaking the rules, he said.

Even if cases increase over the next few days, transmission is within households is not so concerning in terms of the extent of the outbreak, he said.

"Obviously there'll be some vulnerable people there, so we should be concerned about their health, but in terms of the effectiveness of the response, it's really those outliers we should be focusing on at the moment. "

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