Coronavirus: Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield reveals what'd prompt school closures

The Director-General of Health says New Zealand schools may be closed if community transmission of coronavirus COVID-19 is detected.

Aotearoa has 20 confirmed cases of the potentially fatal illness that has swept the globe, infecting more than 200,000 people and killing 8200. So far, all of our cases have been closely associated with overseas travel, having either returned from travel themselves or having a relative who has been to coronavirus hotspots. That means New Zealand is yet to record any case of community transmission, where the disease is recorded in a person with no link to travel.

The Ministry of Health's Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield told The AM Show the confirmation of eight new cases on Wednesday came after people rushed home to New Zealand as it enforced new travel restrictions.

"What we saw [on Wednesday] was that big increase in cases and all of those associated with people returning from overseas, from a range of places, from Europe, from the USA, and so we should expect more," he said.

"We saw a lot of people coming in over the last week or two from those areas which have got quite significant outbreaks. Our job, of course, is to find them early, isolate them, trace the close contacts, and isolate those people. That is how we will prevent that community spread."

According to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand has the capacity to test 1500 people a day, but guidelines remain in place for clinicians in terms of who to test. While doctors are allowed to apply clinical judgement, those being tested should have symptoms - the most common being a fever, coughing or difficulty breathing -  and a link to travel or a potentially exposed person.

Bloomfield said about 620 tests were conducted on Tuesday, and that number increased on Wednesday. 

"Doing the testing will not just identify those cases of people who may have travelled back from overseas, but also we are really looking at whether there is any community transmission and a hint of that, if there is a case that isn't linked to overseas travel, that, of course, is a really important signal and would drive us to more significant measures.

"It is really hard to know [if we have community outbreak], but I would say is that with the increase in testing it will give us a good idea over the next few days if there is any hint of community transmission we don't know about."

One of those "significant measures" kicked into action if community transmission is detected could be school closures, which New Zealand is yet to do on a widespread level.

"It may involve closing schools and universities, but it may not involve closing the whole lot all at once. It might just be just a regional or local thing to do. We have to be a bit nuanced in out response."

He said if schools are closed, children still need to be looked after. That can put pressure on grandparents, who are already vulnerable to the illness. It may also mean people have to take time off work during a time of great economic uncertainty. On Thursday morning, the United Kingdom announced school closures, but would keep some open for children of key workers, such as health staff or police.

"I think that is a new idea. That is one we can start looking at."

More information about restrictions around mass gatherings is imminent, but currently, gatherings with more than 500 people should not go ahead.