In deciding to move Auckland out of lockdown, Jacinda Ardern has decided to take on more risk than she might have previously, Marc Daalder writes
New Zealand’s approach to the pandemic so far has been a conservative, risk-averse one. Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson has previously spelled out the ideology of the path of least regrets – far better to shut everything down to keep the virus out than let it in and find you have no way of getting rid of it.
On Wednesday, however, the Government showed a greater willingness to take on risk than at any other stage so far. Against the advice of a number of high profile public health experts, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield recommended Cabinet move Auckland out of lockdown and the rest of the country back to Level 1. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern agreed and accepted Bloomfield’s recommendations in full.
That’s despite the fact that a number of tests of close contacts have yet to come back, including some from the workplace of the likely index family of the cluster, based in Auckland Airport and handling dishes and laundry from international flights. It remains unclear where the small outbreak originated, and other people infected by the source could still be incubating the virus – yet to show symptoms but soon able to spread it in a Level 2 environment.
Add on that the outbreak is characterised by one of the new, more transmissible variants of Covid-19 (which experts say a Level 3 lockdown might struggle to contain if infections spread too widely), and the Government appears to be taking an unusually dangerous bet. Plus, there’s some evidence the new variant incubates faster, meaning there could be several generations of transmission yet undetected.
“This shift in alert levels is not cautious enough from my public health perspective, and also from an economic perspective given that regaining successful elimination is also best for the economy,” University of Otago epidemiologist Nick Wilson said. “We still don’t have any clear idea how the pandemic virus got through the border and many test results are outstanding.”
His colleague Michael Baker and University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles had previously called for an extension of the existing settings as well.
In all likelihood, Covid-19 is not spreading unseen in the community. Probably, we are dealing with a situation like the Northland case from late January, where a handful of people were infected as a result of a border failure (in that scenario in MIQ as opposed to the airport) but no further spread occurred. But what are the odds that something more severe is going on?
It’s impossible to totally rule out undetected community transmission, short of testing everyone in the country, but the level of risk the Government is adopting now is far greater than it was once comfortable with.
The Government has previously displayed an unwillingness to take anything other than the most risk-averse stance when moving down alert levels. In April last year, it chose to extend Level 4 by five days to cover the Anzac Day long weekend. When Auckland stepped down from its second lockdown in August, the rest of the country remained at Level 2 to ensure consistency across regional boundaries.
Now, the Prime Minister is fine with people travelling from a Level 2 environment to a Level 1 one, asking only that they “take their bubbles with them”. She has chosen to take a similarly voluntary approach with the Papatoetoe High School community, who are being asked to isolate at home through the weekend but without the legal force of a public health order.
Ardern insists she isn’t more comfortable with Covid-19 and says she never will be. But these actions – a decision to leave lockdown when so much is still uncertain – tell a different tale.
Responding to a pandemic is an exercise in risk management. In this case, we’ve chosen a riskier path than expected – we can only hope it won’t come back to bite us.