New Zealand needs a COVID reset

The current COVID strategy needs an urgent reset. It is now evident that staying in Level 3 over coming weeks will lead to a dismal Christmas

Last year I wrote many articles on COVID19, starting five weeks before the first lockdown. The common thread running through most of them was that we were underestimating the beast, being reactive rather than proactive. But we were lucky and we got away with our tardiness.

And then around September 2020 I largely stopped writing about COVID19. The reason was simple.  Our strategies had caught up with the COVID situation. My very last article was in January where I thought that we were underestimating the effects COVID19 would have throughout 2021.

Now nine months later, I am writing again about COVID19 because we are acting too slowly to the new emerging situation. Events of the last week have demonstrated that we need a COVID reset.

The key issues relate to how we can get through the next six weeks, giving vaccine rates a chance to reach higher levels without an infection blowout in the meantime. The associated issue is the need to treat New Zealand during this time as three distinct regions with hard borders between them.

All of this is politically difficult. It requires the Government to acknowledge that right now COVID19 is winning the battle and that they got some decisions wrong. With hindsight, Auckland went into Level 3 too soon and the existing regional boundaries have been too soft.

The most crucial statistic is that on Friday 8 October there were 33 new cases where people were known to be infectious in the community. Then there is the Sunday 10 October statistic of 60 new cases. Clearly, we now have exponential growth occurring. At best, we have a tiger by the tail.

Leadership sometimes means admitting errors and doing a reset. I have always liked the Eisenhower quote, of which there are several versions, that ‘planning is everything but plans are nothing’.  There is no point in trying to defend the indefensible.

The challenge right now is that the people of Auckland in particular are tired of lockdowns. Also, an environment of uncertainty is mentally debilitating. Ongoing lockdowns without clear end points will not be obeyed, particularly within some demographics.

So, here is pathway to get us through the next six weeks.  The path is not perfect because there are no perfect paths. But right now, we are on the brink of something a lot more painful.

Unfortunately, Auckland and most probably Northland and the Waikato do need to go back into Level 4 for a four-week period. That will be exceptionally painful but the alternative is even worse.

This four-week period at Level 4 would be followed by two weeks of Level 3, with this followed by Level 2, and with the date thereof being around November 24, and with this date laid out now.

This would give everyone who is willing time to be double vaccinated (using a three-week vaccination interval) plus a two-week immunisation interval thereafter.

The rest of the North Island and the South Island country would remain in Level 2 in the interim, unless and until events proved an alternative course of action was needed.

The need for hard borders
In addition to any soft borders, there need to be two hard borders, one separating off the North Island into two, with Waiouru being a key border point. There would need to be additional hard-border points on Highways 2, 3, 4 and 5, with Highway 43 also blockaded.

Cook Strait provides a superb natural border between the North and South islands. Freight would continue by air and sea. The Cook Strait ferries could use different drivers, with North Island drivers leaving their loads on the ferry at Wellington and fresh drivers picking up the load in Picton. All passenger air-transport between the islands would cease except for medical emergencies.

These two hard borders do not necessarily replace existing soft borders. Rather, they are defensible borders with prospect of being maintained.

These hard regional borders may need to remain in place even after all within-region movements are opened up. At some point regional hard-borders would be removed for those who are vaccinated, but perhaps not until considerably later for the non-vaccinated.

In contrast, softer borders protecting regions such as Rotorua and Taupo will almost certainly be bypassed. All they can do is slow down the infection rate outside of Auckland before eventually being made irrelevant.

There is nothing magic about 90 percent
One of the existing challenges is that there is nothing magical about the 90 percent vaccination target. This is because it is evident that vaccinated people can still be infectious, albeit most likely at much reduced levels compared to non-vaccinated people. It is now very clear that total population immunity in the absence of other restrictions has not been achieved anywhere in the world and it is unlikely to be achieved in New Zealand.

Even if and when the 90 percent target is reached across New Zealand, there will still be approximately 800,000 people not eligible for vaccination. This would leave the overall vaccination rate at approximately 75 percent, but with some demographic groups well below that.

So, 90 percent by itself is not going to stop the virus finding the non-vaccinated. According to The Spinoff [https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/08-10-2021/the-spinoff-covid-tracker/ ], using Ministry of Health data, New Zealand’s vaccination-eligible Asian community already has a vaccination rate of 97 percent for one dose and 65 percent for two doses. In contrast, Maori have a vaccination rate of 59 percent for one dose and 35 percent for two doses.

There comes a time when individuals have to take responsibility for their own welfare. Society cannot be responsible for those who will not get the vaccine.

The alternative of staying in Level 3 over coming weeks appears to combine the worst of all outcomes. It is now evident that exponential growth is highly likely to continue. We will indeed end up with two groups of people, these being the vaccinated and the infected, but with everyone’s lifestyle affected.

To those who say that restrictions should be removed earlier than what I have set out here, my response is to say that we have to accept that it is only now that many people are becoming eligible for their second dose.

And to those who continue to say that we cannot leave anyone behind, I say that this current commitment is counter-productive. The non-vaccinated need to understand that broader society will not tolerate being treated in this way. And that is something that the Government also needs to understand.  Either people get the vaccine or they accept the consequences.

This still leaves the vexed question of how to deal with overseas returnees. My assessment is that opening up New Zealand’s international borders will no longer be the Government’s most urgent priority. The most urgent priority is getting the internal situation under control.

The bottom line has to be that the clock is ticking very fast. Even if all of these regulations were implemented by Cabinet at its Monday 11 October meeting, then daily case numbers will likely remain on track to exceed 100 daily cases within the coming week to ten days, and potentially well above this. There is no time to waste.

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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12 Responses to New Zealand needs a COVID reset

  1. Tania Fernyhough says:

    Hi Keith, it is very interesting to investigate countries such as Japan and India (in particular the state of Uttar Pradesh) to see how their use of Ivermectin has correlated with the massive decrease in Covid deaths and disease. I believe that there is a MUCH better way to manage our way through Covid than vaccines and lockdowns. We can surely learn the lessons from countries overseas rather than bumbling our way through this far into the pandemic. If Ivermectin was made widely available as a prevention as well as a treatment, and people were encouraged to take daily vitamins D & C and zinc, we could just live life as normal. Anyone who was sick could stay home but the rest of NZ could live unrestricted lives without the need for government intervention or control….

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Hi Tania,
      I too am interested in Ivermectin, but Ivermectin is very controversial and I am not sure where the truth lies.
      Keith

    • David Porter says:

      Hi Tania, the problem with ivermectin is that there just isn’t the evidence and the more time progresses, the less there is. You will no doubt be able post dozens of websites showing it as the miracle drug but any peer reviewed publications I’ve seen are coming down as inconclusive at best.
      Keith is right in that vaccination is the only way forward and everything else is a distraction. Keep looking for treatments but don’t let people think that this is the way forward.
      For my sins, I’ve been living through the UK/Ireland outbreak and it is only since high vaccination rates that deaths have slowed. For those selfish enough not to want a vaccine, think about this. My colorectal surgeon friend has had six patients go from curable to incurable cancer since March last year because there are no ICU beds free as they are full of unvaccinated patients. There are no vaccinated patients in the ICU at his hospital.

      • Tania Fernyhough says:

        There is so much I could reply to here. But my challenge was to look at places like Uttar Pradesh, which from what I understand have very low vaccination rates and yet appear to have beaten the pandemic by giving their citizens a pack containing, “Paracetamol tablets, Vitamin C, Multivitamin, Zinc, Vitamin D3, Ivermectin 12 mg [quantity #10 tablets], Doxycycline 100 mg [quantity #10 tablets]. Other non-medication components included face masks, sanitizer, gloves and alcohol wipes, a digital thermometer, and a pulse oximeter.”

      • Keith Woodford says:

        Tania,
        The Uttar Pradesh story is much broader than this. As a start, Uttar Pradesh had a sero-positivity by late June of 71%. In contrast, Kerala was only 44%. In other words, the infection wave came to Kerala much later. And by late June it had essentially run its course in Uttar Pradesh. You need to be careful of using sources where the conclusion are where the analysis starts, and where only information that supports those conclusions is reported. As for Zerohedge, that is definitely not where I go when looking for epidemiological answers. I remain open to the idea that ivermectin may be a useful drug for COVID, but currently it is a real fog with people in their tribal structures shouting echo-chamber misinformation across the void.
        Keith

      • Tania Fernyhough says:

        Fair points, Keith!
        It is possibly harder to argue with the real life experiences of the doctors successfully treating Covid overseas with almost no hospitalisations or deaths, despite some of their patients being very vulnerable, though?
        And then there is this, reported in the NZ Herald recently https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/covid-19-delta-outbreak-government-signs-advanced-purchase-agreement-for-covid-19-treatment-pill/LZIVPET6AHLXPRLQF6KDYP2OBI/ It seems that we are very happy to gobble up 60,000 doses of an almost untested new and expensive drug that appears to have maybe a 50% success rate in keeping vulnerable people out of hospital or dying. Versus the decades old Ivermectin that costs a few dollars or less per dose, and has been widely used in actual clinical practice with success amongst those who have used it in combination with other medications and nutraceuticals. According to the evidence, if you take Ivermectin for Covid at worst you will be parasite free and at best you will get better much faster. Yet doctors in NZ are practically banned from prescribing it to prevent or treat Covid. There is something very fishy there I believe.

  2. Bill says:

    Check out mercola.com of use of Ivermectin in Argentina

  3. Henry Filth says:

    O don’t think the New Zealand state has the capacity and capability to define and enforce a “hard border”.

    It simply lacks the coercive power.

  4. Keith Woodford says:

    Henry
    I think that enforcing a ‘hard border’ may be less challenging than enforcing a circuit breaker on the case numbers via a level change. I saw the two as complementary, but I recognise that many Aucklanders are not amenable to any return to Level 4, even if it were a short circuit breaker of say two weeks rather than my suggestion of four weeks.
    There are no easy solutions!
    Keith

  5. Tom Walker says:

    So you think the elimination strategy is still the way to go Keith?

    Interestingly, here in China they still seem to have that strategy and have just built a massive purpose built quarantine facility here, close to Guangzhou airport. We had an outbreak of the Delta variant here in Guangdong in May and the authorities did manage to ”stamp” it out by limited lockdowns, mass testing and an effective contact tracing system. Quite an achievement when you consider how they live ”cheek by jowl” here!..one ”titbit” is that they run the PCR test at Ct 20 and not the much high Ct levels like the West was/is.

    I am not sure vaccinations will be the ”silver bullet” when you look at the Israeli data…they went ”hard and early” with the Pfizer vaccine and their hospitals are full of the vaccinated and are now on their fourth wave of infections. But more destressing in regards to vaccines in NZ is our PM`s utterances that they will treat it like measles…has no one told her that the measles vaccine is a sterilizing vaccine that is 95% effective and the Pfizer vaccine is a ”leaky” vaccine that effectiveness wears of very quickly as the Israeli data shows.

  6. Keith Woodford says:

    Tom,
    Our national strategy is now ‘curve flattening’ rather than ‘elimination’ although I have not seen those precise words used officially. It is about trying to control the exponentiation until the vaccine rate has a chance to reach where it needs to be.
    The big issue now is whether existing lockdown levels will achieve that curve control to an acceptable level that prevents hospital overload. I am not confident.

    Any further ‘on the ground ‘insights you care to share with me relating to either COVID or other things in China are always appreciated, either publicly here or privately to my email.
    Keith

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