Tougher New Zealand rules on Covid-19 could set it apart as 'normal' nation after lockdown

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington and Eleanor Ainge Roy
Photograph: Kai Schwörer/Getty Images

The New Zealand government’s swift move to lock down the country when there had been no deaths and only a few hundred cases of Covid-19 has drawn widespread praise - but an epidemiologist told a committee of lawmakers on Tuesday that the rules alone would not be enough to curb the virus’ spread.

“It’s like pressing the pause button on your device,” David Skegg, an emeritus professor of epidemiology at the University of Otago, said of the four-week national lockdown that began last Wednesday. He added that the sacrifices New Zealanders had made by staying at home, and the hit to the country’s economy of a national shutdown, would be “a terrible waste if we don’t pull out all the stops now.”

“We could effectively eliminate the virus over the next few weeks,” said Skegg, if officials were more ambitious in their testing and contact tracing measures during the lockdown. He added that the government should ensure the lockdown was as comprehensive as possible, and tighten restrictions on those in quarantine after arriving from overseas – some of whom have reported being allowed out of their isolation to buy groceries, which should not be allowed.

He urged the government to produce a single, clear document explaining its goal, which he said should be elimination of the virus.

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“We could be one of the very few countries on earth to be functioning normally” after the lockdown, Skegg said, adding that most countries had ordered the public to stay at home “much too late”.

“We still have a window of opportunity but only if we lift our game quickly,” he said.

Skegg was speaking to a New Zealand parliamentary committee convened to hold government and public officials to account over their decisions on the Covid-19 pandemic. It is chaired by the leader of the opposition, Simon Bridges, and features MPs from every political party in parliament.

New Zealand has recorded 647 cases of coronavirus; 14 people are in hospital with the virus, including two in intensive care, and one person has died.

The number of those infected, Skegg told the committee, was “likely far higher” than the number of cases confirmed, and authorities had “really ... no idea of the extent of community spread,” he said. Health officials say 1 to 2% of cases in New Zealand were contracted through community transmission, a rate that they expect to grow.

Skegg said that as testing had been “heavily skewed towards those returning from overseas,” it was unsurprising that the figures of community spread were so low.

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Separately on Tuesday, the government released modelling that informed its decision to lock down the country, which showed as many as 14,000 New Zealanders could die if coronavirus got out of control, with more than 65% of the population infected. Those aged 60 and over were most at-risk.

New Zealand’s director general of health, Dr AshleyBloomfield, said extra PPE supplies were being rushed to workers on the frontline, many of whom have told MPs and the media they were running out of protective gear and felt unsafe doing their jobs.

On Tuesday a national state of emergency was extended for an additional seven days. The emergency declaration gives officials the power to requisition goods, close roads, and direct people to move from certain areas.

Meanwhile, the national airline carrier Air New Zealand said that 3,500 employees would be laid off in the coming months as it grapples with severe global travel curbs that has led to cancellation of nearly all its flights.

In an email to staff and customers, Greg Foran, the chief executive, said if domestic restrictions on travel continue beyond the planned 28 days, further layoffs may be required.

Foran said that in a year’s time he expects staffing levels to be 30% smaller than they are currently.