11 Apr 2023

Now 'as good a time as any' to lift Covid-19 isolation rules - expert

2:07 pm on 11 April 2023
University of Canterbury professor, Michael Plank

Michael Plank. Photo: Supplied.

Restrictions specific to Covid-19, and not other diseases, cannot last forever - so now is as good a time as any to ease them, a disease modelling expert says.

Cabinet is weighing up whether to drop the seven-day isolation requirement for anyone who tests positive, one of the few mandatory remaining measures still in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

Business leaders are pressuring the government to drop it, Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope telling RNZ employers are short-staffed enough as it is.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins on the other hand told Morning Report earlier on Tuesday following the likes of Australia and the UK and ending mandatory isolation could see a wave of illness, making existing worker shortages even worse.

University of Canterbury mathematics professor and Te Pūnaha Matatini principal investigator Michael Plank told RNZ's Midday Report on Tuesday the "direction of travel" internationally was to drop isolation requirements, and it was inevitable New Zealand would too.

"Are we going to be having these mandatory requirements specifically for Covid forever? Or even for 10 years? You know, I think internationally we're moving out of the emergency phase of the pandemic.

"Covid hasn't gone away - it's still a big public health issue - but we're moving towards treating it alongside all the other important public health issues that we have to deal with.

"And so, removing these mandatory isolation requirements that are specific to Covid, I think probably is going to happen sooner or later."

Leading University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker, who advised the government on its zero-Covid strategy in 2020, is in favour of keeping mandatory isolation because it protects people against a range of serious infectious diseases, such as whooping cough and influenza, as well as Covid-19, which can cause long-lasting disability.

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles is urging a test-to-release strategy, which could let people out earlier if they were unlikely to be infectious.

Dropping the requirement altogether would risk a wave of infections and death, Plank said, and in the long-term result in infection levels settling down "to a level that's potentially a little bit higher, but probably not that much higher than what it would otherwise have been".

It was difficult to tell from looking at just case numbers overseas, he said, because without any rules people were not incentivised to report their test results.

"There are trade-offs involved with these sorts of decisions. I think, you know, probably these legal requirements will be phased out sooner or later and if that's the case, then now is probably as good a time as any."

But regardless of the rules, Plank said it was up to individuals to do the right thing and stay home when they were sick.

"I think the important message is that regardless of what the legal requirements are, it's not a good idea to go out and be coughing and spluttering over people. So if you are sick, whether you test positive for Covid or whether you've got flu or some other respiratory illness, it's really important to stay at home. I mean, that's just basic common sense and an important public health measure.

"And so, the extent to whether we do see a wave following any relaxation in these sorts of requirements really depends on people's behaviour.

"I think if people are sensible, if people continue to stay home rather than go out into the community while they're symptomatic, then that will help reduce the sort of potential health impact."

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