Authorities may enforce more restrictions on New Zealand if the rate of infection from SARS-CoV-2 doesn't begin to change, one of the key figures behind the country's response says.
In an effort to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness, New Zealand is currently under alert level 4 with a nationwide lockdown in place. That means people are required to stay indoors unless it is absolutely necessary to go out, non-essential businesses must remain closed and schools are shut.
There are several pieces of legislation that enable the enforcement of the lockdown, including the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, which allows the Prime Minister to activate special powers for medical officers under the Health Act 1965. Those powers allow people to be quarantined and can stop people leaving health districts until they are proven not to be infectious.
Running complementary to that is the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002, under which a state of emergency can be declared, providing the Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black with a range of powers.
Those include the ability to:
- close or restrict access to roads or public places
- remove or secure dangerous structures and materials
- provide rescue, first aid, food, shelter etc.
- conserve essential supplies and regulate traffic
- dispose of dead persons and animals
- enter into premises, for example, to rescue people or save lives
- evacuate premises/places
- remove vehicles, vessels
- requisition equipment, materials and assistance.
In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, a state of emergency was declared last week and extended on Tuesday. As Stuart-Black told The AM Show on Wednesday, the emergency must be renewed every seven days.
"The powers in the Act are so far-reaching, that it is one of the safeguards we have in place so that there is a deliberate review that happens before extending it for another seven days," she said.
"It means we ask those deliberate questions about whether or not those tests are still there to say that these powers are necessary or may need to be used as part of the response to COVID-19."
Some of the powers already used include requisitioning a carpark to be used for a COVID-19 assessment centre as well as closing shops still operating during the lockdown.
Stuart-Black said authorities are currently trying to ascertain how things are going and said while compliance had been high, there are still some people not following the rules, put in place to limit people's exposure to those with the virus.
If the rate of infection doesn't change while the country is in lockdown, Stuart-Black said that may prompt more restrictions being enforced.
"Finding the balance there between recognising the majority of New Zealanders are following that advice, but recognising that, equally, if we are finding that the rate of infection doesn't change, and that is based on that public health advice, that in fact, there might be more restrictions that might be needed," she told The AM Show.
"Police will be actively considering what they might need to do in light of any changes to that public health advice."
What further restrictions/abilities could we see?
Asked if there are powers to require people to be kept in their homes, not allowed to leave, Stuart-Black said: "Yes, there are more restrictive powers that could mean that additional restrictions could be put in place and that is always an option. We are not there yet.
"But what I would say is that those things will be actively considered as we move through and get a sense of how the numbers of infections are responding to the lockdown conditions we are in at the moment."
She said that one of the things that may be required further down the track is the ability to "manage either supply chains or access to fuel".
One idea suggested on Tuesday was a nationwide curfew. Police Association President Chris Cahill said that would help ease pressure on officers trying to enforce the lockdown but also dealing with regular crime at the same time.
"The people who are out [at night] are either very genuine... like truck drivers or things that are delivering what we need to get out there. But the majority of people in vehicles after that probably shouldn't be out and we are finding a lot of them, unfortunately," he said.
Asked about a curfew on Tuesday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said "we are in a pretty stringent environment as it is".
Identifying what the rate of infection is and how that is changing is one of the key things authorities will be looking at over the coming weeks. The lockdown is currently scheduled for four weeks, but may be extended nationally or regionally if officials believe community transmission is still occurring.
In order to detect that community transmission, testing is pivotal. The Government announced on Tuesday that it was changing the criteria for someone to be tested. Anyone can now be tested if they have symptoms of the illness, rather just those who had symptoms as well as a link to overseas travel or a confirmed/probable case.
Currently, in New Zealand there are 647 confirmed or probable cases of the illness, which has been caught by more than 830,000 people worldwide and caused 40,000 deaths. One person has died from it in New Zealand.
Of Aotearoa's cases, 1 percent are defined as community transmission, 53 percent had links to overseas travel, 29 percent had contact with a known case and 17 percent were under investigation. Since early March, more than 21,000 tests have been conducted with an average of 1777 per day over the last week.