14 Sep 2021

Government sticks to elimination as Auckland enters fifth week of lockdown

6:29 am on 14 September 2021

The government maintains the elimination strategy is the best plan for New Zealand but won't say how long it intends to use lockdowns to stamp out any future outbreaks.

A deserted central Auckland in the midst of the August 2021 lockdown.

A deserted central Auckland in the midst of the August 2021 lockdown. Photo: RNZ / Robert Smith

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says vaccination rates will be critical to any future responses, with the only stated target to get them as high as possible.

Tāmaki Makaurau faces another week at alert level 4 as officials still work to fully contain the outbreak while the rest of the country remains at alert level 2.

ACT Party leader David Seymour is now calling for the elimination strategy to be abandoned if Auckland's lockdown doesn't bear fruit within the week.

"There may not be easy answers but clearly we've had a strategy that has worked somewhat, and has run out of runway. We now need to consider what a new strategy would look like," he said.

Seymour has proposed a strategy of suppression in Auckland, with a hard border to prevent the virus from spreading to other regions.

"It may be worth saving the rest of the country while keeping Auckland at a level of restriction that allows businesses in Auckland to do business while we wait for vaccination rates to be high enough."

However, Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy says abandoning the elimination strategy would be devastating for both business and the healthcare system.

He said giving up on stamping out the virus now would result in a large number of deaths and prolonged periods of restrictions, as seen in New South Wales.

"Really, we're looking at another couple of weeks at most I think of alert level 4 and then a relaxation through to alert level 3 back to 2 and then back to 1 so we can have a relatively normal summer here in New Zealand," he said.

"The alternative really is staying at alert level 3, which is still very difficult for businesses, for a very long time, well into next year, on top of what would be a healthcare emergency.

"So I think from an economic point of view, extending the lockdown to deal with this outbreak and then getting back to normal as fast as possible is the right strategy."

Professor Hendy says he's confident the latest Delta outbreak can be eliminated if the team of five million stays the course.

"We weren't sure going into this outbreak how well alert level 4 would work against Delta but actually we have seen it work very effectively.

"So we think that, provided we're prepared to stay the course, to put in that little bit of extra mahi that actually it'll pay off and we'll be able to eliminate this outbreak."

National Party's Covid-19 Response spokesperson Chris Bishop believes elimination is still possible if testing, tracing, and vaccinating are all done properly, and hospitals are geared up to cope.

"Once we give up on elimination, we can never go back. So it's a very, very big move. New Zealand has achieved something that no other country has achieved.

"Prior to this most recent outbreak, we got rid of Covid-19 from our community... We have the tools and the capability and the technologies at our disposal to make elimination work for us."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says the current lockdown in Auckland is working and the public just needs to stay the course.

Looking into the future, he says even other countries with high vaccination rates are still having to use restrictions on occasion.

"[Other countries] are still having to use restrictions on and off to protect their population and to protect their healthcare systems and that's regardless of how well-resourced their healthcare systems are.

"So there's a lot of water to flow under the bridge and at the moment our focus is on vaccinating to the highest rate possible."

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