Coronavirus: Academics propose easing restrictions, lockdown no longer needed

A group of academics claim data shows COVID-19 can be managed without the "severe" effects of the lockdown, which they want lifted and replaced with a format similar to the Government's alert level 2 restrictions. 

New Zealand is currently under an alert level 4 lockdown, which requires people to stay at their residence unless heading out for essential services or exercise, while non-essential businesses are closed and schools are shut. 

A decision on whether to extend the lockdown past next Thursday will be made on Monday. If it is lifted, New Zealand will go to alert level 3, which still has many restrictions. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed to The AM Show on Tuesday that New Zealand won't jump any levels on the way down.

But six academics - including law and experimental economics lecturers - want that to happen, proposing New Zealand comes out of lockdown and shifts to a "risk-based management plan" similar to alert level 2.

Dr Simon Thornley, a senior lecturer of epidemiology at the University of Auckland is one of the founding members and, in a press release, says the lockdown strategy is "no longer proportional to the threat posed by COVID-19 to New Zealanders' health". 

He said prolonged lockdown could harm the nation's long-term health, social fabric, economy and education.

"The lockdown was appropriate when there was so little data, and when it seemed sensible to try to eliminate it or wait for a vaccine. But the data is now clear - this is not the disaster we feared and prepared for," Dr Thornley says.

Among the group's recommendations is for low-risk people to return to daily routines, with schools reopened, all leisure activities allowed, gatherings restricted to less than 100 people and domestic travel permitted. Vulnerable people should continue to self-isolate and receive priority care and financial support, while border controls would also be maintained.

The principal aim would be to prevent stress on the health system, with medical professionals continuing to be provided with personal protective equipment and hospitals monitored for overcrowding.

Dr Thornley says the "real threat" of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, is putting more pressure on health services than they can handle, creating unnecessary deaths and virus spread.

"But the risk of this happening is lower in countries such as ours with lower population density and our health system currently has spare capacity".

The statement says data shows most COVID-19 deaths have occurred in people due to their comorbidities, meaning the co-existence of other conditions, rather than directly from the virus. It points to Italy where "only" 12 percent of cases are directly due to COVID-19.

"If you catch COVID-19 your likelihood of dying is the same as your average likelihood of dying that year anyway. It has been described as squeezing your year’s mortality risk into two weeks."

Of nearly 2 million cases and 117,00 deaths globally, New Zealand has recorded 1349 cases of COVID-19, with five elderly individuals dying. The number of cases reported daily recently has been trending downwards, while in countries with relatively more relaxed views on containing the virus, the numbers tend to trend upwards.

Modelling from the University of Otago released two weeks ago showed New Zealand could have had 14,000 people die without significant action being put in place, and tens of thousands of hospitalisations, overloading the health system. 

It was modelling like this which informed the Government's decision to introduce the lockdown and attempt to eliminate the virus.

Research from Te Punaha Matatini released on Thursday found that only in an "optimistic scenario" - which New Zealand was tracking along - would the virus be contained after a four-week lockdown and with fast contact tracing. Other scenarios showed that after lockdown another outbreak would occur, with potentially hundreds of cases a day if no subsequent action was taken. 

The modelling suggested a lockdown of 90 days would be needed to fully eliminate the illness. Dr Thornley says elimination is "almost impossible to sustain as the virus is likely to become endemic across the rest of the world and a vaccine may be years away".

Border measures, including mandatory quarantining, have been introduced, however, to limit the ability of people entering New Zealand to pass the virus on. The Prime Minister has signalled these will last for a long period of time.

The six founding members of the group are: 

  • Dr Simon Thornley, senior lecturer of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Auckland
  • Dr Grant Schofield, professor of public health at the Auckland University of Technology
  • Dr Gerhard Sundborn, senior lecturer of population and pacific health at the University of Auckland
  • Dr Grant Morris, associate professor of law at Victoria University of Wellington
  • Dr Ananish Chaudhuri, professor of experimental economics at the University of Auckland
  • Dr Michael Jackson, a postdoctoral researcher with an expertise in biostatistics and biodiscovery, University of Wellington