Covid-19: Contact tracing ‘Ferrari’ will be enough to contain future outbreaks

ANALYSIS: Aucklanders wake up this morning having lived through New Zealand’s shortest Covid-19 lockdown.

Just three days long and with alert level 3 restrictions allowing comforts like takeaway food and coffee, Auckland’s brief confinement ranks as one of the shortest and least onerous Covid lockdowns anywhere in the world.

The question for New Zealanders is whether Cabinet’s decision yesterday represents a new, more confident and possibly more cavalier evolution of the country’s Covid-19 response, which one economist and modeller described as the “Ferrari” of international Covid plans.

Around Parliament yesterday there was a belief that the Government’s approach, described by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as an “abundance of caution”, would cause the lockdown to be extended for another few days. This was certainly the case when a further two new cases were announced in a select committee at noon.

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Some in the National Party believed the lockdown would be extended, perhaps unusually, given the party’s often doveish attitude to restrictions, they even thought they’d extend it too, were they in charge.

But the mood changed just before 2pm, when a confident Covid-19 minister Chris Hipkins made his way through a socially distanced media scrum en route to the debating chamber. A far cry from the ashen-faced man announcing new cases on Sunday, Hipkins made the point that the two new cases had clear links to the current cluster, a cause for optimism.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she’ll never be comfortable with Covid-19.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she’ll never be comfortable with Covid-19.

As for Ardern herself, she characteristically took the middle way when asked if the decision to end Auckland’s lockdown meant she felt more confident dealing with Covid-19 this year.

“I will never be comfortable with Covid-19. There is an indescribable anxiety that comes with the daily grind of managing a pandemic and I think we all feel it,” Ardern said. “But you do learn things, undoubtedly you learn things.”

Some of the things the Government has learned came off the back of previous mistakes. Since September, ministers have been working to Heather Simpson-Brian Roche’s report into issues at the border. Those changes have probably resulted in fewer incursions, especially during the summer, when a flurry of Covid-positive returnees stretched MIQ to breaking point.

However, as National Party Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop pointed out in the House this week, the most likely chains of transmission for the current Auckland case relate to issues that Simpson and Roche identified and which should have been fixed by now.

The report referenced problems around scheduling the testing of some border workers – an issue in the current case who should have been tested on February 1 but was not; it also noted that there were concerns even then about how dirty and clean laundry was separated and cleaned – a possible vector of transmission in this case.

It’s somewhat embarrassing for the Government that this case appears to have come through a route it was warned about in September, but that embarrassment is balanced out by the fact their Covid response is now so secure that its only way into the country is apparently on dirty bedsheets.

This epidemiological head scratching is a sensation New Zealanders should get used to.

It might not be obvious from our low case numbers, but managing Covid-19 and keeping our elimination status is more difficult than just applying tougher measures than in other countries.

As director-general of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has been saying in public (and new Cabinet minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall has been telling her colleagues) the cases we investigate here are highly unusual, mainly because most of the more ordinary vectors of transmission were quashed by the first lockdown last year.

Most other countries are dealing with outbreaks involving tens of thousands of cases a day. International research is directed towards mitigating the effects of those outbreaks on people and stopping them from getting larger.

With the most obvious and basic pathways of transmission eliminated, our cases nearly always turn into the epidemiological equivalent of Sherlock Holmes novels; officials are left to ponder how transmissible the virus may be on bedsheets, elevator buttons and even frozen food.

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles urged caution ahead of the decision, saying an extra couple of days would give the Government more data and more confidence to make its decision.

Following Ardern’s decision, she said that the Government was ‘’obviously confident they’ve got it under control and can limit any further spread using test-trace-isolate strategy”.

Wiles said that the decision would hopefully “reassure people that the government will only use moving up the alert levels when they think it’s absolutely necessary”.

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.

Economist and modeller Rodney Jones said leaving lockdown showed something a bit different. The Government is now confident not just that the outbreak is contained, but that its “toolkit” was good enough to contain further MIQ leakages.

“Over the summer break people have forgotten how good the toolkit is to contact trace and define the limits of clusters,” Jones said.

“We have a Ferrari in terms of our system in terms of chasing down these clusters – we can do that,” he said.

Jones is also optimistic that despite new, highly transmissible Covid variants popping up, New Zealand’s risk of further outbreaks was reducing as the world got over the peak of infections thanks to the international vaccination campaign.

“We can see case numbers globally on a daily basis, and we can track the path of the virus – right now, despite these variants we’re past the peak of the pandemic,” he said, saying the peak was around New Year.

“We were getting 60 cases a week in MIQ that’s down to 10 to 15 now and that should decline further,” he said.

If that’s indeed the case, New Zealanders might dare to hope that Auckland’s shortest lockdown might in fact be its last, although in the age of Covid-19 it pays to hedge all bets.

Audio provided by RNZ.

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