Coronavirus: NZ could be 'its own bubble' by wiping out COVID-19 - researcher

Two weeks into the lockdown, many of us will be sick and tired of being stuck in our bubbles. But what if we had a bubble of 5 million? 

Health experts say if we manage to "squash" the curve, as a widely-shared Washington Post article about New Zealand put it on Wednesday, a border quarantine will stop the coronavirus from coming back.

Falling numbers of new confirmed infections suggest the lockdown and social distancing measures are working, but the borders - still open to Kiwis - remain a weakness, operating on somewhat of an honour system.

"For New Zealand to achieve elimination, there's a series of things that have to happen," University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told Newshub.

"The most important is obviously controlling the borders - having a very effective quarantine for anyone who comes back."

The National Party in recent days has been calling for a quarantine, and the Government is expected to announce one on Thursday.

Of course we're never going to close the borders," said Dr Baker. "It's just a matter of managing them effectively so that infected people who are detected at the border don't come into New Zealand."

Without new hosts to infect, the SARS-CoV-2 virus - which causes COVID-19 - will die off. 

University of Auckland health data researcher Giresh Kanji told The AM Show if we manage to end local transmission of the deadly virus, this will effectively expand our bubbles to envelope the entire country.

"We need to make sure people coming into New Zealand are not just allowed through, but have thorough tests, swabs, then possibly sent to hotels or quarantine for two weeks before they can integrate. This may need to go on for several months.

"What's going to happen, is once COVID-19 dies off... we're going to have be the bubble. New Zealand will have to be its own bubble." 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said there will be no loosening of the pandemic alert level 4 restrictions before the full four weeks is up. What happens then will depend on how our elimination strategy is going, with the possibility different parts of the country could be at different alert levels and have varying restrictions. 

"New Zealand is certainly on the right track, and I believe the early closedown and going to stage 4 quickly was a very good move from the Government," said Dr Kanji.

"I believe that hopefully we'll be arresting this without the devastating loss of lives that are going to be seen - and are currently being seen - in nations such as Italy, Spain, and I think will be seen in the UK and the United States very soon."

"New Zealand is the only Western country which is pursuing a very explicit elimination goal - that's to get rid of the virus in New Zealand," said Dr Baker. "We know it works because it's been done in China, it's been done in other Asian countries. Strangely, the rest of the Western world doesn't seem to have absorbed those lessons... It wouldn't necessarily work everywhere, but any country which is controlling its borders - and that's all countries which are islands - could do what New Zealand's doing."

The economic cost

ACT Party leader David Seymour has suggested the restrictions could be lifted early, citing among other things the devastating toll the lockdown is exacting on the economy. 

"Every day that we are locked down people are losing money, they're losing businesses, they've got mental health issues that are going to arise. Every day that we stay on lockdown matters."

But both Dr Kanji and Dr Baker say the cost will be far greater if we don't get rid of the virus first. 

"Many countries are saying there's a tradeoff between public health and the health of the economy. But actually, I think the way the pandemic's going, the two actually go together very well," said Dr Baker. 

"If you can eliminate it, you can come out the other side in a moderate period of time - after one or two months, or maybe a bit longer. China is showing that.the alternative, what we're seeing in most Western countries, is a very prolonged, difficult period where you initially try and dampen it down - mitigation - and then most countries have now gone into suppression mode, where you have lockdowns of varying levels of intensity that will have to go on for months while they wait for a vaccine." 

Dr Kanji says the "cost of hospitals and ventilators - and the cost of deaths - are far higher than the cost of quarantine", not to mention how a rising death toll would affect the nation long-term. 

"The loss of life will devastate the national psyche for generations to come in countries like Italy and Spain. Absolutely no doubt. It will be worse than losing the World Cup for rugby in New Zealand."