The Prime Minister says New Zealand has a robust plan in place to tackle any re-emergence of Covid-19 within our borders, Marc Daalder reports

New Zealand is ready for a second wave.

That’s the message Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wanted to get across in a speech to the nation on Wednesday morning.

It has been 75 days since the last case of Covid-19 was acquired locally from an unknown source, but Ardern cautioned New Zealand against resting on our laurels. She pointed to places like Melbourne, which has recently returned to lockdown, as well as second waves in east Asian nations like Hong Kong and South Korea as evidence of the threat the virus still poses to New Zealand.

Ardern said that New Zealand had planned around three general scenarios for the re-emergence of Covid-19, in the event that a case slips through the managed isolation and quarantine system at the border.

All three scenarios would rely on the general principle of testing for local transmission, contact traicng positive cases and isolating both the cases and their contacts for as long as necessary. Such a strategy would be the first resort, while a return to Level 3 or Level 4 lockdown would be the last resort.

In the first scenario, in which a small number of cases are successfully contained within a community, Ardern said the country would likely remain at Level 1 but that the region or town in question could have its alert level escalated.

“The local measures to contain the case would involve rapid contact tracing and isolation of cases and their contacts, scaled up and targeted testing of people connected to the case, such as workmates, those they live with or those in their neighbourhood,” she said.

The second scenario would be a large cluster of cases, connected to a particular event or location, within a broader geographic region. Likewise in this scenario, Ardern said, the country could remain at Level 1 while the entire region was put into a higher alert level.

“Here, a significant increase in testing would be the priority. We would look to undertake much wider community testing, on top of testing any contacts or potential contacts of those with the virus. This could look like it did in Victoria where health staff went door to door to test people in affected areas,” she said.

“We would also take steps to stop the spread to other parts of the country so a regional shift in Alert Level would likely be applied that restricted travel. This would mean travel in or out of the city, town or region could be stopped, people in that place asked to work from home, and local restrictions on gatherings implemented.”

During the Level 4 lockdown in April, the Government considered de-escalated alert levels by region but ultimately decided against it.

“A geographically-differentiated approach to step-down could undermine the social license on which our wider Covid strategy is dependent,” officials in the National Crisis Management Centre wrote to Cabinet, according to a document proactively released by the Government in June.

“Allowing some regions to step down sooner may detract from the ‘all in this together’ narrative and compromise efforts at public acceptability for more stringent control measures.”

Ministry of Health officials agreed with this reluctance to scale down regionally, but said it could be an option in the future.

The third scenario is multiple clusters spreading nationally. This would call for a nationwide increase in Alert Level, Ardern said, although that didn’t necessarily mean going straight to Level 4 lockdown.

Where information was not available to discern whether an outbreak was small and locally contained or the tip of a community transmission iceberg, “we will take a precautionary approach, and scale back as needed, rather than run the risk of doing too little too late,” Ardern said.

Ardern emphasised that New Zealanders should be using the Government’s NZ COVID Tracer contact tracing app. Uptake of the app by businesses and individuals alike has been woeful – in recent days, as many as seven of every eight QR code posters has gone unscanned. On average, each app user has scanned just 2.5 QR codes since the app debuted in late May. Just one in every 60 users uses the app on any given day, according to recent statistics.

Ardern said that wasn’t good enough.

“Someone using the COVID Tracer app exponentially improves our chances of being able to [contact trace] effectively. We can set up a framework but unless people are taking responsible for themselves and recording themselves where they are or have been, that makes that job harder,” she said.

“We have to be vigilant. I understand that after 70 days of not having Covid in our community, that for some people it may have moved to the back of their minds. We can’t do that. We’re just not in a position globally to start thinking like that.”

If QR posters don’t become more widespread in businesses in the near future, the Government could also mandate the printing and displaying of the posters, Ardern said.

Newsroom reported in June that the NZ COVID Tracer app was released a month after it was originally meant to. This delay meant that private sector options like Rippl proliferated as the country moved to Level 2 and businesses reopened with a contact tracing requirement, leading to confusion among the general public as to what app should be downloaded and what QR codes could be scanned.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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