Government drives forward with a COVID-19 rear-vision mirror

The notion that New Zealand is running ahead of the curve no longer stands up to scrutiny. We have to run faster. The policy is essentially reactive rather than proactive

Saturday 21 March is the day when community transmission of COVID-19 first became evident. It is apparent that there is now at least one COVID-19 case from unknown community transmission, with this being in the Wairarapa. There also appears to be a case in Auckland involving a two-step infection back to a traveller.

Assuming the Wairarapa infection occurred three to seven days ago, then the likelihood is that there are now multiple more cases ‘out there’ waiting to be found.

Until now, the cases predominantly link to air arrivals up to about 15 March and most are from several days prior to that. But in this last week, the risk profile of new returnees has increased considerably.

Given that identified infections have risen approximately six-fold in the last week, currently standing at 53 and up from 28 just two days ago, it is reasonable to expect a similar rate of increase in the next week. An increase of anything less than three-times over the coming week would be a good outcome, but that would still take us to over 150 cases.

For arrivals from most countries, the apparent risk factor associated with each person has increased by a factor of about four in this last week, but for those from the United States it appears to have increased at a considerably faster rate. The flow of returnees in this last week has been remarkable.

In designing the appropriate policy for this coming week, the key issues relate to the people who arrived last week, together with all of the people who are still to come in this week.

There are two key weak points with the current control system. The first relates to the lax quarantining of people, including but not only New Zealanders, arriving from overseas. The second relates to internal transmission within the country through the contacts of these people. I have previously described these as major flaws.

The time has now come for all new returnees to be placed upon arrival in Government quarantine for fourteen days at army facilities. Returnees could be transported to facilities such as at Whangaparoa, Linton and Burnham, including using chartered planes from Auckland.

There must be thousands of camper vans that rental companies would love to rent to the authorities to house the returnees at the army bases. The army could feed them. If necessary, hotels could be contracted to provide additional meals. The system has essentially already been trialled for the 150 Wuhan returnees back in early February.

As for internal transmission, it is remarkable that pubs, restaurants, libraries, museums and gyms still remain open. Where they have closed, then it is based on decisions by local authorities and individual businesses, not by central government.

I have been hearing our Prime Minister referring multiple times to the examples of Taiwan, Singapore and even South Korea as the models we are following. This is make-believe from her health advisers who clearly do not understand how those societies work. I have discussed that previously.

In any case, numbers are now ramping up again in all three of these countries, largely driven by their own citizens returning home but also from internal transmission.

The following quote is taken from a comment in the New York Times, dated there as 20 March. It was written for an American audience, and of course with American spelling, but it is just as relevant for us. The key point is that we may think that we are patterning ourselves on these countries, but we aren’t.

***

“I was in Taiwan for several months when the Wuhan outbreak first happened. People on the street were concerned, fearful, but staunch – went about their daily routines. The government was really fast – boarding airplanes from China, taking temperatures of passengers and also arriving passengers from different places. If you went to a restaurant or museum, your temperature was first taken, your hands sanitized, and you had to wear a face mask if you wanted in. The custom in Taiwan is opposite Italy’s, people keep a polite distance. Public touching, not much. Public and mass transportation – wear face masks. Healthcare is universal and data of sick people went right to the epidemiology command center in real time. People were quarantined and tracked by their cell-phone to ensure compliance. Violators were fined substantially.”

***

I have yet to see any evidence of thermometers being used as a screening tool in New Zealand.

I also note our Prime Minister says in defence of our testing rate that the New Zealand rate is similar to South Korea on a per capita basis. There are two issues there.

First, I think her advisers have got their maths wrong. But even more important, they have not factored in that the South Korean outbreak was focused in the city of Daegu, and also that most of the infected people belonged to a particular religious sect, with these people largely socialising among themselves. Every member of that sect who could be identified, some 200,000, was tested. Despite all of those advantages, infections are increasing rather rapidly again in South Korea, with over 380 new cases in the last three days.

Here in New Zealand, a key voice that authorities do not seem to be listening to is Professor Michael Baker from the Wellington Campus of Otago Medical School. His speciality is public health. He has spoken publicly on multiple occasions in recent weeks about COVID-19 and these statements are easily found by googling his name.

In recent days, Professor Baker has talked about schools being great places for viruses to spread within and hence the need to now close schools until we get things under control. Today, he has also described the current situation and lack of testing in New Zealand as “emblematic of the need for a pulse of lockdown”. He says that “it sounds melodramatic to say now or never, but I think it’s the case.”

As for asking over-70s to stay at home, I am cautious about that. As a measure of self-protection, it will become increasingly necessary as the infection rates rise. But right now, the key issue is getting ahead of the curve, and it won’t help very much at all in that regard.

Given that the Government’s policy is increasingly looking like flattening the curve, and hence consistent with a long-term goal of herd immunity rather than focusing on stamping it out, the over-70s are at risk of being shut up for a very long time. The issue of social isolation of this group becomes of great importance.

The longer that our leaders and their advisers focus on the rear vision mirror and use incorrect analogies from overseas, then the more we will stay behind the curve.

Let’s get pro-active and stamp it out. The harder we stamp then the shorter time it will take. And that means that we all have to do our part in the next month to six weeks.

If we stamp hard enough then we still have an excellent chance of eliminating the disease from our shores, although we will now have to stamp considerably harder than if we had moved more proactively a week ago. It is in that context that I said several days ago that the Government had lost the plot.

Government quarantine of all new returnees, plus closing of pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and gyms, and also unfortunately the closing of schools until the end of Easter, is what we now need.

The alternative is a long and brutal winter.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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10 Responses to Government drives forward with a COVID-19 rear-vision mirror

  1. David Porter says:

    I have no doubt that what you say is right Keith. The main problem though is that there are too many selfish citizens who won’t do what they are told, even if they know it to be right.
    In Italy, using cellphone company tracking data, 40% of people are moving outside the 200m limit from their house. I was speaking to a Northern Italian business colleague yesterday who confirmed that it is definitely quieter but the streets are far from abandoned despite it being a criminal offence and €200 fine to be out without reason.
    Also,a complete shutdown is the only realistic way of beating the virus isn’t it? But we have to have essential industries such as electricity, water, health and food maintained, albeit at a reduced level of service (except health!). This means tens of thousands of people that must go to work and come into contact with colleagues/patients/customers every day. That means too many chances for transmission to stamp the virus out doesn’t it?
    I agree that yours is the best way to deal with it but I just don’t think our society can do it to the extent needed.

    • Keith Woodford says:

      David
      I think we can get the results we need as long as all new returnees go into quarantine at the army camps. It might be a little tough for those people but the returnees from Wuhan reckoned it was OK.
      I am comfortable that all of the essential people keep working, and there will be more of those than we realise. For example, everyone with a direct relationship to farm production, including input providers, is essential. Some health care workers will need help for transport and that needs to be factored in. But as long as the restaurants, bars and unfortunately schools are closed, then there is highly unlikely to be a big super spreading outbreak. And that is the key. A single waitstaff person with goobies on their hands can spread it to many people. We still have restaurant staff who hold glasses by the rim!
      Keith

  2. Rod McKenzie says:

    Arrived back from Australia, last night and got temp check as had minor cough. That was all good.
    But was disturbed to be told by head health person, ‘it was all right to pop into the supermarket to grab something quickly” = crazy

  3. granthod says:

    Are you talking to the PMs advisers?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      granthod,
      In normal times, I know that my posts do get widely circulated, at least within some Governemnt departments, and do get read by some ministers. But these are not normal times so I really do not know who in Govt might or might not be reading them.
      KeithW

  4. Tom Walker says:

    Just the same here Keith (in Guangzhou) as your quote describes the situation in Taiwan..your temp. gets taken getting on a bus,subway,taxi,entering supermarkets,housing complex`s,markets,restaurants,offices and it was amazing how fast they got this up and running when the extent of the problem was known in Wuhan.

    As for foreigners flying into Guangzhou..they get taken to hotel in a special bus from the airport to a hotel and are quarantined there for 14 days at their expense.For returning Chinese I would guess they would go to their homes but have a monitored quarantined for 14 days as happened with the family we stayed with recently up by Hangzhou.

    For community spread in NZ..the guidelines until very recently were to only test people who were recent travelers or who had been in contact with recent travelers. If you don`t look for something you surely will not find it!

    Btw,all schools and training centers are still closed over here…maybe the Chinese are listening to Prof.Baker!

  5. Howard de Klerk says:

    Tests were only allowed to be conducted on people with direct links to travellers. We were not allowed to test for community transmission. So is it a case of the more we test the more we will find rather than not having community transmission? We know this virus is contagious – so we must have it – we need to test. 1500 tests per day will take a month to test but 1% of population – and some test pos on 3rd test.

  6. Wayne Peter McIndoe says:

    What about workers in the meat industry farmers are off loading stock to the meat works, which have strict food safety rules? – would they be able to be operating during a lockdown – it is not a public place

    • Keith Woodford says:

      In my opinion, everything related to food and health is essential. That includes meat processors.
      KeithW

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