Coronavirus: Sir Peter Gluckman explains what it could take for alert level 3 to last only two weeks

The Prime Minister's former Chief Science Advisor says New Zealand could move to alert level 2 within just two weeks after lockdown is lifted if there's no rebound in infection rate.

Sir Peter Gluckman has co-authored a discussion paper, The Future is Now, with the deputy director of thinktank Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, Dr Anne Bardsley. It looks at the issues facing New Zealand over the coming months and years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of this, Sir Peter has looked at how New Zealand could move from alert level 4 - where we currently sit - to alert level 2 as quickly as possible. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet will decide on Monday whether the country's lockdown is lifted and we move to alert level 3, which is still restrictive, but provides the opportunity for more businesses to open and people to slightly extend their bubbles. She has confirmed we won't jump levels, meaning straight from level 4 to level 2 is out the question.

Asked on Thursday how long Kiwis could expect to stay at level 3, Ardern said each level is being planned in "cycles of transmission". Each cycle is 14 days, the virus' incubation period.

In his paper, Sir Peter says that if New Zealand is at alert level 3 and sees "no rebound in infection rate" after one or two of these cycles, we could move quickly to level 2. 

This is contingent on New Zealand retaining strict border controls and restrictions on large gatherings, both of which will continue under the Government's current alert level framework.

The country has seen a downward trend in the number of COVID-19 cases being reported each day, only 2 percent community transmission and dropping number of cases with unknown origins.

To have a greater understanding of infection rates, however, requires surveillance testing - where samples of the population are tested to identify any silent outbreaks -  and rapid contact tracing. 

Sir Peter says more information is required about New Zealand's situation, and our apparent low morbidity and mortality rate compared to the northern hemisphere shouldn't make Kiwis overconfident. 

"These decisions will require in-depth ongoing analysis of the pattern of disease in New Zealand to date, including ideally some knowledge on community exposure at least through sentinel surveillance, and consideration of the possible impact of impending colder months," he says.

"Given the inevitability of imperfect elimination, and given some probable level of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread, it will be critical to have rapid and highly effective and high capacity contact tracing in place before relaxing restrictions."

On Thursday, Ardern said there were several "primary factors" being considered in regards to what would trigger moving New Zealand down a level. 

"Are we seeing that exponential growth that tells us that you've lost control? Are we seeing indicators of widespread community transmission? Are we seeing, in particular regions, any of those signs as well? And then we look at all of the things that then help you maintain where you are - contact tracing and the scale of contact tracing, effectiveness of quarantine, and isolation measures," she said. 

Efforts are underway to ramp up surveillance testing, including with a testing site at a Queenstown supermarket on Thursday. The Government is also looking at developing phone applications which track individuals' movement and show other phones the person has been near. This would allow quick identification of who may have been exposed to someone with the virus.

Companies which prove they are compliant with health guidance could be certified and allowed to reopen when the restrictions are relaxed, Sir Peter says. 

"There will need to be a substantive change in focus from what is labelled an 'essential service', to one focused on defining how businesses can operate in a safe manner under relaxed guidelines. One possibility is to certify companies to be allowed to reopen subject to compliance with predefined control commitments," he says.

New Zealand will start to see more businesses open under level 3, which allows those not reliant on customer-facing functions to operate as long as workers follow health advice like keeping one metre between each other, recording who is working together and maintaining high hygiene standards. This means the likes of construction companies and manufacturers can begin work, but retail and hospitality businesses that don't deliver cannot. 

The full Future is Now report can be found here.