'Same trajectory as Italy': GP says NZ too late in raising coronavirus alert level

  • 23/03/2020

A general practitioner says the New Zealand government has acted too late in raising the country's alert level as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpasses 100. 

Dr Michael Courtenay is among more than 67,000 people who supported a petition, started by Urgent Care Physician Dr Kelvin Ward, calling for New Zealand to go to level 4 alert to prevent the health system being overrun and "countless unnecessary deaths". 

At the weekend, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern introduced a four-tier alert system based on the spread of the virus and announced New Zealand was at a level two. 

On Monday, she escalated the status to a level three and said level four is imminent in 48 hours. 

With more than 40 years as a doctor behind him, Dr Courtenay says he has been extremely concerned about the time it has taken for the Government to act. 

He says there's an "overwhelming feeling" among the medical profession that the status should have moved "without any hesitation", but decision-makers were slow to listen to the advice from the medical fraternity.  

"I cannot under emphasise how unbelievably serious it is. You're not going to believe how serious it's going to get," Dr Courtenay told Newshub. "I'm not being melodramatic, this is fact.

"We're on the same trajectory as Italy right at this point and time, it's doubling every three days and the government is late already making the call." 

With 5476 now dead in Italy, the country has overtaken China in registering the most deaths from the highly-contagious virus. 

Dr Courtenay, who is the clincal lead at an Auckland practice, says there is undoubtedly community spread in New Zealand, "without any shadow of a doubt". 

"You get a large amount of people who are going to pubs and public galleries, they spread it like wildfire with minimal symptoms." 

He believes there is an urgency for Kiwis to take the virus seriously or risk lives being lost. 

"People are going to die unnecessarily without any doubt, we're not playing games here. We need to wake up."   

A wide-range of health professionals united in calling for quicker action, including urgent care physicians, intensive care specialists, surgeons, nurses and pharmacists but the petition was met with frustration from the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) who were disappointed over how many people in the medical industry who supported it.

NZNO associate professional services manager Hilary Graham-Smith said we should be guided by the Director-General of Health and the Ministry of Health instead.

"If it [the petition] unsettles people and they think the right decisions aren't being made then yes we will have a state of panic," Graham-Smith told Newshub on Sunday 22.

Since announcing the change on Monday, Ardern warned that without the strict measures of level four, "tens of thousands of New Zealanders could die from COVID-19".

"Everything you will all give up for the next few weeks, all of the lost contact with others, all of the isolation, and difficult time entertaining children - it will literally save lives. Thousands of lives," she said.

"The worst-case scenario is simply intolerable. It would represent the greatest loss of New Zealanders' lives in our country's history. I will not take that chance." 

What this means 

  • Non-essential businesses must close - pools, bars, cafes, restaurants, playgrounds
  • In 48 hours all businesses which provide takeaway services must close their doors
  • All indoor and outdoor events cannot proceed
  • Schools will be closed from tomorrow except to the children of essential services such as doctors, police, ambo drivers. This will give them time to plan
  • Schools will close entirely from midnight Wednesday
  • People must work from home so contact with others is limited
  • Public transport will begin to transition over the next 48 hours. It will remain for essential workers and transporting freight