Coronavirus: How New Zealand can stay on track in the fight against COVID-19

With the world singing our praises, all eyes are on New Zealand and its response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief and University of Canterbury graduate, Anna Fifield, has applauded the country for "squashing" the curve. CNN has given Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a glowing review for her "ambitious" approach to eradicating the virus. Yet as Ardern warned on Monday, we cannot get complacent.

The University of Auckland's Professor Shaun Hendy, the director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence, is the man modelling New Zealand's COVID-19 spread from his kitchen table. He says it's imperative that New Zealanders continue to adhere to Government protocol and do not lose focus in weeks three and four of Alert Level 4 lockdown.

"We need to continue to stick to our bubbles and be really conscientious about reporting symptoms," Hendy told Newshub on Monday.

"The case numbers show that we have broken many of the chains of infection over the last couple of weeks, but it would be easy for us to relax and undo all that good work."

During Monday's daily press conference, Ardern confirmed that New Zealand is "definitely not in a position to move out of Level 4 early". Level 4 lockdown, which was imposed nationwide at 11:59pm on March 25, will remain in place for a minimum of four weeks. The decision as to whether the lockdown will be extended is expected to be announced on April 20. 

Although the number of new cases has steadily decreased, Ardern warned New Zealanders that "behind one new case can sit many others". This week has begun with just 19 new confirmed and probable cases - just eight days earlier, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed New Zealand's highest daily total of 89. New cases may have declined, but the death toll has risen, with a fifth death - a man in his eighties - being announced on Monday. 

"[Today's death] is a timely reminder that our battle with this virus is far from over. While overall case numbers have continued to fall, even one case can become many. Our clusters have shown that the simple act of coming together for a social occasion... can lead to more than 80 cases, as we have seen," she declared.

"And even more deadly is if the virus reaches people in vulnerable communities, like rest homes and aged-care facilities, where three of our five deaths have occurred. 

"Our number of cases may be small, but that does not mean we have been successful in hunting this virus down. One positive can be indicative of other cases in the community."

Hendy agrees "it's still too early to tell" whether lockdown should be lifted on April 23 as initially planned. 

"The cases that are being reported today really represent what was happening a week ago, so we’ll need to wait a bit longer to see whether there are still chains of transmission in place that are supporting the spread," he explained.

"The longer we can stay in lockdown, the less likely it is that we will have to go back into Level 4 again later in the year. 

"There are some parts of the country that are looking like they may be clear of the virus, so it may be that some of the regions could come [out of] lockdown earlier than the bigger cities where we are still actively tracing, testing, and isolating cases."

Hendy says if New Zealanders continue to use their common sense and adhere to Alert Level protocol, we will be able to stay on track in stamping out the virus.

One way to remove COVID-19's foothold is by ensuring New Zealanders "don't flock to lower Alert Levels" if lockdown is lifted in some specific areas.

"If some parts of the country go to Level 3 while others don’t, it will be really important that people don’t flock to lower Alert Levels," Hendy reiterated.

"In other words, it will be important that we restrict long-distance travel. At Level 3 we should make sure we are maintaining physical distancing as much as possible.

"[We should] avoid reopening businesses and activities where large numbers of people congregate or businesses where it is possible to work from home."

On Monday, Ardern announced that more information regarding Alert Levels 3 and 2 will be available on Thursday. Using the analogy of a "waiting room", Ardern implied that more activity will be permissible under Level 3 but "significant" restrictions will remain in place. 

The new details will build on the framework outlined by the Alert Table and will provide more information for businesses, transport, health, recreation and education. 

"We cannot be complacent. Behind one case can sit others," she warned.