Jacinda Ardern won New Zealand’s election with a commanding majority, in part attributed to her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in her country. But a veteran epidemiologist is exhorting the prime minister to use the political capital gained in her decisive victory to scrutinise the coronavirus response by her government and officials, and adopt strategies proposed by her opponents before Saturday’s vote.
“New Zealand has shown it can be quite smart and flexible, but we can see we’ve got these blind spots and we need to have no blind spots,” said Nick Wilson, a University of Otago epidemiologist. “This is such an unforgiving disease and very few countries are doing it right so we need to smarten up our act quite substantially.”
Ardern’s government has been commended internationally for its pandemic response, in which one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in March and April resulted in a death toll of 25, and fewer than 2,000 confirmed cases in the nation of 5 million.
With 58 active Covid-19 cases – only three of them in the community and the remainder contained in border quarantine facilities – New Zealanders have returned mostly to life as normal. People have largely abandoned masks in public, and use of the government’s contact-tracing app has slowed to a trickle with just over 620,000 scans of the QR codes displayed in businesses reported by health officials on Thursday, down from 2.5m in August.
“We need to ask what’s the best way to control an outbreak when it occurs, and it’s not through this low-grade app that people are just going to give up on,” Wilson said. “It’s just not sustainable.”
Instead of urging New Zealanders to use the app it was time to examine “the whole system” imposed to contain the virus “now that the election is over and politicians are less fearful about getting tripped up by decisions they make,” Wilson said.
The chief danger lurks at the borders as New Zealanders return from Covid-19 hotspots around the globe. They must spend two weeks in government-run isolation but the facilities are urban hotels, where slip-ups in management procedures could easily prompt community outbreaks.
The integrity of New Zealand’s border containment strategy was a main point of attack for the opposition National party ahead of the election, forcing Ardern’s government to defend its decisions.
“It’s inevitable that when the opposition was suggesting pre-flight testing of travellers, the government didn’t want to suddenly adopt it because it looks like they’re on the back foot,” Wilson said.
He added that when New Zealand First – a minor party that had supported the government during its previous term – had suggested purpose-built quarantine facilities to house returning travellers, it had also failed to gain traction because of the politics at play.
Wilson supported both proposals, as well as limits on travellers arriving from the worst-affected countries.
“Now we need to just put all that political posturing aside and say what is the best solution from a completely scientific risk management perspective,” he said. “We need to look at the cost-effectiveness and the best use of people’s time and effort.”
He also decried the visa exemptions granted for some essential workers to enter the country, among them 235 Russian and Ukraine fishing crew with 18 cases of Covid-19 diagnosed. All remain in a government-run quarantine hotel in Christchurch.
“Statistically, there’s going to be more Auckland-level outbreaks if we don’t tighten things,” said Wilson, referring to a case of unknown origin – likely connected to the country’s border – that prompted a second lockdown for Auckland in August. “The government needs to think if it’s worth the risk to have lowly paid fisherman and fruit pickers brought into the country, risking a cost of millions of dollars for future lockdowns.”
Michael Baker, also a University of Otago epidemiologist has, like Wilson, called for an official inquiry to examine New Zealand’s Covid-19 response to date. Those watching New Zealand’s relative success from abroad might covet the south Pacific nation’s results, but it had not been perfect, the men said.
The pair have long recommended a different contract-tracing system: a wearable dongle, as used in Singapore; telecommunications data, as deployed in Taiwan; or Apple and Google protocols as used in Europe, all of which require less active engagement than the New Zealand app does.
“The government just doesn’t want to even start thinking through the privacy issues,” Wilson said. “They were super cautious before the election but now they’ve got a huge mandate and it’s got an opportunity to thoughtfully reassess things and not stick rigidly to what they were doing before.”
Andrew Chen, a digital analyst and a research fellow at the University of Auckland, said only a small proportion of people are using the government’s coronavirus app.
“My math is that there’s 250-300,000 people per day using it,” Chen said. “I think we’ve sort of found the people who are taking it really seriously and will keep doing it.”
There was “nothing more” the government could do or say to urge more people to use the app, and officials should hasten plans for something better, Wilson said.
Ardern’s pledges for helping the country recover from coronavirus have centred on job creation and training, and positioning New Zealand on the world stage. But the government has yet to commit to an official inquiry on its Covid-19 response.
“At some point in the future, it will be time for a full review of our response to Covid, but not just yet,” the health minister Chris Hipkins told the news outlet Stuff this week. “We are still in the middle of dealing with the global pandemic and I don’t want anything to distract from that effort.”