The Delta outbreak hasn’t changed the calculus for the chair of the Government’s expert panel on reopening, who says elimination should still be our first choice, Marc Daalder reports
When Sir David Skegg stepped up to the podium in a crowded room in the National Library on August 12, he drew a comparison with other countries.
In the United Kingdom, he said many people still work from home full-time and 90 percent wear a mask when leaving the house.
“Look at this crowded room. None us of us is wearing a mask, and we are not fearful of contagion. This would be unthinkable in most countries,” he said.
Today, it would be unthinkable even in New Zealand. That’s because, even as Sir David spoke two weeks ago, the Delta variant was already spreading in the community.
But in comments to Newsroom this week, the epidemiologist and architect of the Government’s reopening strategy said the outbreak changed little about the conclusions of the expert panel he chairs: That New Zealand could begin a phased reopening of the borders in 2022 after the vaccine rollout was complete and that Covid-19 could continue to be eliminated without the use of lockdowns in this freer future.
Sir David said he has been surprised at how the sudden shift to Level 4 lockdown in response to the Delta outbreak has shaken the faith of some political and economic commentators in the elimination strategy and the Government’s ambitious reopening plan.
As with previous outbreaks, the need to resort to lockdown – and particularly a stringent nationwide one – sparked a host of doubt in the viability or cost-effectiveness of elimination.
“I must say I have been puzzled as to why an entirely predictable community outbreak has led some people to form strong opinions about the viability of the current elimination strategy,” Sir David said.
Indeed, a July 27 letter to Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, released as part of the package of expert advice to the Government that Sir David’s panel provided, contained a stark warning of exactly this eventuality.
“Even with current settings, New Zealand is liable to experience an outbreak similar to that in New South Wales over the coming months – although presumably we would go into lockdown more quickly,” that letter stated.
“So,” Sir David told Newsroom, “this outbreak came as no surprise. New Zealand has been very fortunate to go for nearly six months with no community transmission of Covid-19.”
For now, he has no doubts that the elimination strategy is the right thing to do. With just a fifth of the population fully vaccinated, the alternative would be little different than if we had opened up the borders last year. Perhaps, with Delta, it would be even worse.
However, in his comments to Newsroom, Sir David emphasised that the expert advice had entertained the possibility that elimination may not be viable after reopening and that the strategy would have to be kept under review.
“I do expect there will be further consideration of New Zealand’s strategy in the coming months. This consideration will be in the light of the global situation and all the emerging evidence about Delta and new variants of the virus, as well as about the immunity conferred by vaccination,” he said.
“Also the vaccination coverage we achieve in New Zealand, including in particular regions and population groups, will influence our options.”
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told TVNZ’s Q+A programme on Sunday that some of the unique traits of Delta raise questions about our ability to eliminate it in the future.
“Less than 24 hours between someone getting it and passing it on to others, that’s like nothing we’ve dealt with in this pandemic so far and that does change everything,” he said.
“It does mean that all of our existing protections start to look less adequate and less robust as a result of that. We’re looking at what more we can do there but yes it does raise some pretty big questions about what the long-term future of our plans are.
“We very focused on making sure that we’re preparing for a different kind of a future but at this point we don’t really know what that’ll look like.”
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said more information would be needed to shore up any plan for continued elimination.
“For now, absolutely elimination is the strategy, particularly while we vaccinate our people,” she said.
“Going through into next year, we’ll continue to get the advice of our public health officials and our external advisers and experts as we’ve always done, and say, look, here was our experience through this outbreak. Does it change our approach going forward?”
Like Ardern, Sir David’s focus for now is the current outbreak, although it is anticipated he will discuss some aspects of the reopening plan when he appears before the Health Select Committee on Thursday.
“Until the vaccination rollout is completed, the case for maintaining our elimination strategy is compelling. The [number one] priority at present should be trying to extinguish the current outbreak, so that life can return to normal in New Zealand,” he told Newsroom.
“We should not be distracted by debate about the strategic options for 2022. That will be an important issue once everyone has had a chance to be vaccinated, and there will be a lot more relevant information by then.”