Coronavirus: COVID-19's not going away, so 'no point' in staying at alert level 3 - expert

A Kiwi medical professor is urging the Government to lift the pandemic alert level, saying we're going to be living with the threat of COVID-19 for 18 months "at least".

Des Gorman, who used to head the University of Auckland's School of Medicine, told The AM Show on Monday things like social distancing, "fastidious hygiene" and isolating at the first sign of sickness are the "new normal". As a result, there's "no point in us sitting at level 3", with the financial harm it's causing.

"As we wait, we are incurring not just economic damage... we are generating financial hardship and unemployment which is going to create a far greater health burden than anything this virus has caused."

As the Opposition has pointed out, thousands of people have applied for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks. At the same time, the number of new daily cases of COVID-19 has slowed to a trickle, New Zealand appearing to have avoided the kind of outbreak taking seen in other relatively wealthy countries such as the UK, France, Italy and the US. 

The Government and most epidemiologists - experts in the spread of disease - that have spoken publicly say eradicating the disease will allow us to fully reopen the economy and be better in the long run. Dr Gorman isn't sure that's true.

"Put simply, financial hardship and unemployment is very bad for your health... the greater the financial hardship we impose on people and the greater the unemployment level, the more disease we can expect."

Opposition leader Simon Bridges told Newshub more people will likely catch the disease whatever level we're at, with people tiring of the lockdown. 

"People should follow the rules, but I think what it does show you is there ends up being a level of frustration. I'm really clear -  it's gone on too long."

Dr Gorman believes most experts actually agree with him, but are too afraid to speak out. 

"There is very strong support, but at the moment it's silent... People manage stress by placing faith in authority figures and faith in Government. Right now they're too frightened to speak out for fear of a backlash. 

"I think at the moment, people are saying to me, 'Thank goodness you're raising these issues, thank goodness you've brought these things to the fore. I'm totally supportive of you and I'm happy to do so quietly from the background.'" 

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

Epidemiologist Michael Baker of the University of Otago disagrees with Dr Gorman, telling Newshub the more we find out about COVID-19, the more sense the lockdown makes.

"Increasingly we're looking at the data coming in from overseas, and this is a far more serious illness for even younger people than we had thought previously. I'm just so relieved to be living in a country that has potential to be virus-free. The more data we get, the stronger the arguments are that this is the place to be." 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show she's "desperately concerned" about the economic impacts of the lockdown, but she's also concerned for their lives.

"Our job is to make sure we do the best thing for both and it so happens our strategy is focused on both - the sooner we win the fight against the virus the sooner we get our economy back up and running. But I do not want to make hasty decisions that lead to a yo-yoing between levels. So I am going to listen to the evidence and the advice and the data."

Dr Baker agrees.

"If we stick with this plan for a few more weeks, we can come out the other side into a New Zealand that doesn't have this virus, then we're free of all the illness and death that we know comes with this pandemic. It's good for business, it's good for people getting back to their jobs, and getting the country going again. But we have to really stick with this for a few more weeks."

New Zealand at this point is set to stay at alert level 3 until at least May 12.