Govt complacent and bubble settings must change - expert

Professor Nick Wilson: 'I think the Government has missed things'. Photo: RNZ
Professor Nick Wilson: 'I think the Government has missed things'. Photo: RNZ
A health expert says the Government has become complacent and didn't act fast enough to suspend travel with Covid-19-hit New South Wales.

University of Otago public health expert Professor Nick Wilson told RNZ's Morning Report programme today that a review of the travel bubble settings was now needed, as well as an urgent upgrade of the alert-level system.

Wilson also said it had been a mistake not to make indoor mask-wearing mandatory as well as the use of QR scanning in higher-risk settings as Wellington went into alert level 2.

Health advice phone lines and testing stations will continue to be bombarded today as Wellingtonians seek to tackle fears there could be Covid-19 cases in the city.

The capital went into level 2 at 6pm on Wednesday after an Australian man who spent the weekend in the city tested positive for the virus upon his return to Sydney and was set to come out at 11.59pm on Sunday.

"I still think the Government has missed things," he said.

"They could have actually mandated mask use in all indoor public places. This has worked well in Melbourne recently. Sydney has adopted it and we see here a lack of using this particular tool of mass masking properly."

He said masks were not only effective but also low-cost, adding an extra layer of protection and minimising the chances of expensive lockdowns.

The need to upgrade the New Zealand system was now becoming urgent with the threat posed by the highly transmissible Delta variant, Wilson said.

"Some of us have been giving that advice for a long time and we've been arguing that the alert-level system, which worked very well at the start of last year, should have been upgraded with the new evidence, both around the epidemiology and transmission of the pandemic virus, but also about learning from the overseas experience.

"Even Australia has added in a lot of different aspects to its alert-level system and have made much better use of masks than New Zealand has."

People waiting for Covid-19 testing in Hataitai Park in Wellington. Photo: RNZ
People waiting for Covid-19 testing in Hataitai Park in Wellington. Photo: RNZ

Wilson said the time it took to announce places of interest in Wellington yesterday reflected the difficulties of co-ordinating with Australia in different time zones, but that preparing for these events remained key.

"In these periods of between dealing with outbreaks and the risk of outbreaks, New Zealand needs to probably conduct simulation exercises so that we have all these systems ready to rapidly expand when these situations occur, in terms of testing capacity and testing out our contact-tracing systems to ensure they are really at high-quality levels."

The Government needed to now focus primarily on prevention, which needed to involve a review of the trans-Tasman bubble settings, so that there is earlier prevention of flights when a state has community cases, Wilson said.

Tools like pre-flight testing for people coming from those states where there was any level of concern also now needed to be implemented.

Bubble settings

But a review of bubble settings should be a priority.

"We should have been looking at Sydney and seeing they weren't doing a good enough job and acting earlier... With the new variant around we do need to heighten our level of concern and adjust some of these thresholds."

He said immediately suspending travel to states experiencing unclear lines of transmission had been a reasonable precaution.

"The Government was a bit slow on this particular response," he said.

The tracing app, and particularly mandatory scanning at large events was also needed, he said.

"Some of us have been arguing this for six months. QR code scanning should be mandatory for high-risk settings, big events, bars and night clubs and gyms - all those places where the evidence is so strong now that they can be super-spreading settings. It's a very straight-forward extra level of protection for very little inconvenience."

He said New Zealand had faired well so far, but other countries that had enjoyed success against the pandemic were now going backwards and the government was showing signs of complacency.

"We are seeing, again, the government slips into complacency and doesn't keep trying to get ahead of the virus in terms of these levels of defence," he added.

Yesterday, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the information published about locations of interest, put out just before 9am on Wednesday, was published as soon as it was available. He said he believes it would not be fair to categorise the reaction as sluggish.

Meanwhile, microbiologist Siouoxsie Wiles from the University of Auckland says if there are any Covid-19 cases connected to the person who came to Wellington from New South Wales, these will show up in the next couple of days.

Wiles told RNZ's First Up this morning the big unknown was how infectious the Australian traveller was. The man spent the weekend in Wellington visited restaurants, bars and art galleries, including Te Papa.

She said there was the possibility the person could be a super-spreader if they were highly infectious or there could be no transmission at all.

Wiles said it was better to err on the side of caution and act as if they were infectious.

 

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