On Sunday, New Zealand will mark 100 days without community transmission of Covid-19.From the first known case imported into New Zealand on February 26 to the last case of community transmission detected on May 1, elimination took 65 days.
New Zealand relied on three types of measures to get rid of the virus:
- ongoing border controls to stop COVID-19 from entering the country.
- a lockdown and physical distancing to stop community transmission
- case-based controls using testing, contact tracing and quarantine.
Collectively, these measures have achieved low case numbers and deaths compared with high-income countries in Europe and North America that pursued a suppression strategy.
There are key lessons from New Zealand’s Covid-19 experience.
A vigorous, decisive response to the pandemic was highly effective at minimising cases and deaths. New Zealand has the lowest Covid-19 death rate in the OECD.Total all-cause deaths also dropped during the lockdown.
This observation suggests it did not have severe negative effects on health, although it will almost certainly have some negative long-term effects. Elimination of the virus appears to have allowed New Zealand to return to near-normal operation fairly rapidly, minimised economic damage compared with Australia. But the economic impact is likely to keep playing out over the coming months.
Without effective control measures, it is likely to continue to spread globally for many months to years, ultimately infecting billions and killing millions. The proportion of infected people who die appears to be slightly below 1 per cent.
The infection can cause serious long-term consequences for some people. The largest uncertainties involve immunity to this virus, whether it can develop from exposure to infection or vaccines, and if it is long-lasting. The potential for treatment with antivirals and other therapeutics is also still uncertain.
Building back better
New Zealand cannot change the reality of the global Covid-19 pandemic. But it can leverage possible benefits.
- Should conduct an official inquiry into the Covid-19 response so we learn everything we possibly can to improve our response capacity for future events.
- Need to establish a specialised national public health agency to manage serious threats to public health and provide critical mass to advance public health generally. Such an agency appears to have been a key factor in the success of Taiwan, which avoided a costly lockdown entirely.
Several measures can contribute to this goal over the next few months, while also allowing incremental increases in international travel:
- Resurgence planning for a border-control failure and outbreaks of various sizes, with state-of-the-art contact tracing and an upgraded alert level system.
- Ensuring all New Zealanders own a reusable fabric face mask with their use built into the alert level system
Conducting exercises and simulations to test outbreak management procedures, possibly including “mass masking days” to engage the public in the response.
- Carefully exploring processes to allow quarantine-free travel between jurisdictions free of Covid-19, notably various Pacific Islands, Tasmania and Taiwan (which may require digital tracking of arriving travellers for the first few weeks.
- Planning for carefully managed inbound travel by key long-term visitor groups such as tertiary students who would generally still need managed quarantine.