Coronavirus: Level 3 'makes no sense' unless health officials are hiding something - expert

Staying in pandemic alert level 3 "makes no sense whatsoever" unless there's something health officials aren't telling us, a leading health expert has claimed.

New Zealand dropped from level 4 to level 3 earlier this week, allowing many businesses to resume operations. While it's not clear exactly what level 2 would look like, the Government's official COVID-19 site says most businesses can open "with appropriate measures in place", local sports and events can resume and schools would also be fully open once again. 

We're expected to stay at level 3 for a couple of weeks to see how it goes before any decision is made on whether to stay there, go back to level 4 or drop to level 2. 

Des Gorman, a professor of medicine at the University of Auckland, says despite a lack of preparation from officials, New Zealanders have banded together to successfully prevent the disease from taking hold here.

"New Zealanders actually took it seriously and went home," he told The AM Show on Friday.

"I believe that the reason for our success is New Zealanders engaged in the lockdown very, very well... This good outcome's not because of planning, it's not because of our tracing and contact capacity. It's because New Zealanders took this seriously and went home."

There has been on average fewer than five new cases a day reported over the last week, with Wednesday's figure of two the lowest since mid-March - before the lockdown began. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield on Wednesday said he's confident there is no community transmission.

"We are finding that every case we are seeing each day is linked to an existing case and... despite testing a lot of people, we are not finding cases out there unexpectedly, which is very reassuring."

Dr Gorman said if that's the case, we shouldn't be at level 3. 

"There can only be three reasons why we're not moving to level 2 - that is because we don't understand the prevalence of this disease, we can't contact trace or we can't isolate people. We need to know which of those three domains isn't up to speed yet to explain why we're in this situation we're in. 

"Because if we actually understand the disease prevalence, and we can contact trace everyone within 48 hours, and if we can isolate, then level 3 makes no sense whatsoever."

The Ministry of Health told Newshub the decisions are made by Cabinet "based on advice from across Government".

"The ministry is confident that New Zealand can provide high quality contact tracing," a spokesperson said.

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

Officials underprepared

Despite New Zealand's internationally hailed success at stamping out the virus to date, Dr Gorman said we should never have had to stamp it out in the first place. 

"We had the huge advantage of geography - we're a remote island nation at the bottom of the Pacific. Our pandemic readiness had to be around our border, because we quite simply didn't have the resources to deal with a pandemic once it got ashore... If you look at the overall strategy which was 'keep it out, stamp it out', the amount of work we've had to do to stamp it out demonstrated we've materially failed to keep it out."

New Zealand moved relatively quickly - compared to other Western nations - to shut the borders once the virus had arrived. But Dr Gorman said we put too much trust in New Zealanders to self-isolate once they got here, but had little choice with no infrastructure set up to deal with tens of thousands of potentially infected people returning all at once. 

"Other countries mobilised the military and the police. If you want to see how well a quarantine can be done, then Taiwan's a living example of how well it can be done... when you're trying to manage a pandemic you don't say, 'Please go home and please be a good boy or girl.' You monitor people. If they turn their phone off, you knock on their door."

Despite its proximity to mainland China, Taiwan has only reported 429 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and six deaths. 

Dr Gorman also said if we don't learn from this pandemic, being "best-in-show" won't matter - despite killing hundreds of thousands of people in just a couple of months, he says the next virus could be much deadlier.

"If the virus is lethal for everyone if affects, it's actually not going to cause an epidemic because it'll actually kill its host too quickly. The worst possible virus is one that kills a lot of people and makes a lot of people sick, but not sick enough that they can't wander around infecting other people. That's the worst virus.

"In this regard, this particular coronavirus I'd rate as being middle of the pack."

 

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