Lockdown until Xmas - expert's grim prediction if elimination fails

New Zealanders do not fully understand how dire the situation will become if the Government’s elimination strategy fails, a leading epidemiologist says.

While falling case numbers are providing hope, New Zealanders are being warned the Delta variant of Covid-19, and how quickly it spreads, means elimination could still fail.

Academics say the reality of losing the elimination fight would be grim.

Restrictions would need to be in place for months until vaccine rates climbed above 80%, the virus would probably escape Auckland, the healthcare system could be overwhelmed and there would be deaths.

The warnings come against the backdrop of Victoria following New South Wales in giving up on elimination and shifting to containment.

University of Otago epidemiologist Prof Michael Baker remained confident New Zealand would eliminate the virus, but acknowledged there was a risk it could fail.

"There has always been a risk that we would fail against the Delta variant."

If the Delta variant spread out of control, it would not mean the end of restrictions. Instead it might mean lockdown, for Auckland at least, could need to be extended until Christmas.

This would be a new reality for New Zealanders who, due to the success of elimination, had lived with the fewest restrictions in the world for the past 18 months,

"I don't think we even fully necessarily grasp what it will be like if we lose control of this virus," he said.

There would be an element of luck in whether New Zealand was successful.

Michael Baker says the situation in New South Wales  shows how vigilant New Zealand has to be...
Michael Baker. Photo: RNZ

It could depend on messaging getting through to marginalised sections of society who were less engaged in the Covid-19 response.

People in these sections of society were less likely to follow the rules because they might be facing difficulties — for instance poor housing or drug addictions — that meant Covid-19 was not the biggest challenge in their lives.

If Covid-19 spread into these communities it would be hard to contain, Prof Baker said.

"It’s not the middle-class who we have to convince — the jogger who doesn’t wear a mask or something. I don't think that is where we are going to win or lose this."

University of Canterbury mathematical modeller Prof Michael Plank said there was still a good chance elimination would be successful, as it had been with Delta outbreaks in South Australia and Queensland.

But success was by no means guaranteed.

"There is a chance that elimination will be unsuccessful because the Delta variant is so infectious and spreads so quickly.

"But even if we can't eliminate it, giving it our best shot will put us in the best possible position going forward by keeping case numbers low and buying time to get more people vaccinated," Prof Plank said.

If New Zealand moved from elimination to containment the situation would be "incredibly tough".

"The outbreak would inevitably spread from Auckland to the rest of the country. This would lead to hospitalisations and deaths, and we would all be living with strict restrictions and lockdowns for most of the rest of the year."

Removing restrictions would mean the situation would get out of control quickly, Prof Plank said.

"Our models show that, if restrictions were loosened significantly, cases would grow very quickly and, at our current levels of vaccine coverage, could overwhelm our hospitals within weeks."

Melbourne epidemiologist Prof Tony Blakely, who still holds a position at Otago University, told RNZ there was a significant risk New Zealand would be forced to follow Victoria’s lead and shift to containing the virus.

"You need to keep going really hard for another week or two, to see if you can get those numbers turned and going down, but you may have to consider this pivot as well."

Prof Blakely said in Melbourne and Sydney the virus had spread out of control in suburbs with high numbers of multi-generational households, people with English as a second language, and with casual and essential workers.

"And when I cast my eye across to New Zealand that is pretty much what South Auckland looks like, too.

"So I do hope New Zealand is successful with the current lockdown in getting rid of the virus one last time, but it's pretty tough."

Asked if the Government was working on a back-up strategy for if elimination failed, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said: “New Zealand remains fully focused on its elimination strategy."

"All efforts to date, including contact tracing more than 35,000 people and ensuring they are tested and isolated, back this strategy.

"We are confident we can beat Delta and return to the freedoms New Zealanders have grown used to. "

vaughan.elder@odt.co.nz

Comments

View all

Fact : If we dont get a handle on this...our Hospital system WILL be overwhelmed.
Massively Underfunded by successive neolib Govts,it would not be able to cope.
The obtuse who blithely ignore this fact...are thankfully no longer in position to lead us into literally, a disaster.

Keep On it, Team of Kiwi !

https://www.odt.co.nz/news/national/kiwis-back-covid-elimination-strateg...

The thing Baker fails to admit is the elimation strategy is unsustainable. Hipkins has already said that. He said, as Baker does, that the elimation strategy is being used to get iminuzation rates up. That said, their is a new COVID-19 variant in south America called MU which is more contagious than Delta. So we do need a real elimination strategy to protect us If they want to pursue a real elimination strategy then the border needs to be closed for real. Zero entry.

Baker is like one of those lobbyists who considers only the benefits and ignores the costs of their preferred course of action. If elimination fails, as it inevitably will, then lockdowns must finally be a thing of the past — continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different outcome is the very definition of insanity (as a far more credible scientist than Baker long ago pointed out).

To take just one example, Iceland eschewed elimination from the outset, and despite a recent surge in cases (but not deaths), has never resorted to lockdowns. Baker seems to be willfully ignorant of such cases.

"From having only two active COVID-19 cases a month ago, Iceland now has more than 1590, with about 20 requiring hospital treatment, local media reports."

https://www.9news.com.au/world/coronavirus-iceland-delta-variant-covid19...

"Iceland‘s main ICU strained by new Covid-19 cases"

https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/news/2021/08/14/iceland_s_main_icu_st...

Baker "willfully ignorant" ?!. BS. This exactly my point about our Hospital system being overwhelmed..by this kind of "mind"set. Oh and who, pray tell, is your "a far more credible scientist than Baker" ?

Albert Einstein

The biggest weakness that is starting to become apparent is the lack of consequences for lockdown/quarantine breakers. This itself can spread like a virus and people start to think, why bother, nothing happens. This in turn leads to complacency.

The govt is quickly loosing the trust of the team of 4.99999 million because of thier kind approach to the 0.00001. They are also becoming very slow with releasing very important facts and the media is really having to push them on this.

I agree with your points on law breakers, however the team of 5 million ended a long time ago it now only exists in the Prime Ministers spin

Your agenda is ideological.
More are with the PM's strategy than not.

One wonders how much this would change if we were on the cusp of defaulting on crown debt.....

The all encompassing wisdom of models...could we have a model predicting the winning numbers for the next Lotto draw?

I read this article. Both experts consulted were confident that the strategies, the systems and procedures would work if everyone played their part. However they were realistic enough to sound a word of caution, primarily if people don’t do the right thing, there was a chance that things could get grim.
Yet reading the headline you would think the sub editor that put it there hadn’t even read the article. It is entirely misleading.

“The most frightening thing to the government and the Ministry of Health is the burden on hospitals,” says Dror Mevorach, who cares for COVID-19 patients at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem and advises the government.

https://www.science.org/news/2021/08/grim-warning-israel-vaccination-blu...

OUR Hospital system would fail if the minority had their way !

View all

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter