Coronavirus: Auckland cluster would have been smaller if Kiwis hadn't got 'relaxed' under level 1 - expert

A disease modelling expert with the ear of the Prime Minister says it's unlikely Auckland will be coming out of lockdown this week.

Shaun Hendy of research centre Te Pūnaha Matatini said while the new case numbers over the weekend were "encouraging", and almost all of the active cases have been linked to the same cluster, another week at least is needed.

"We need to see those lower numbers for a little bit longer yet before we can have confidence to move out of level 3," he told The AM Show on Monday.

"If you think back to May when we were making this move from level 3 to level 2, we'd seen two weeks of those kinds of numbers. So we do need to leave it a little bit longer to be confident. The risk is that we just have to bounce back to level 3 in a couple of weeks' time. 

"I would ask for a week extension and just regular reviews. If by the end of the week we're still just seeing these very small numbers of cases and they're all linked to this one cluster, then I think we can start considering the move to level 2."

As of Sunday afternoon there had been 93 cases linked to the Auckland cluster, whose origin remains unclear. When the first four were discovered earlier this month, Dr Hendy was one of the first people the Government called, asking for an estimate of how many people might be infected without knowing it yet - a quick calculation suggested there would be dozens already, with the country having been at alert level 1 for some time with virtually no restrictions on movement or gathering sizes. 

"We were really acting as if this wasn't a risk anymore, and that partly contributed to the size of the outbreak we're facing now," he told The AM Show. 

"We were relaxed. That's a natural reaction. We've got to watch what's happening in the rest of the world. We're certainly still in a much stronger position than many other countries - we want to stay that way." 

Jacinda Ardern and Shaun Hendy.
Jacinda Ardern and Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: Newshub.

Epidemiologists such as the University of Otago's Michael Baker have also said it's too soon to lift restrictions. People can take up to 12 days to show symptoms, and some don't show symptoms at all, with studies suggesting 40 percent of all new infections come from people who aren't aware they even have the virus - hence why we're all being encouraged to wear masks, even if we feel fine. 

"The difficulty with this disease is you're always looking backwards," Prof Baker told Magic Talk on Sunday. "It means unfortunately, we have to be a bit patient with it." 

But patience is thin amongst Auckland's business community. Brett O'Riley, head of the Employers and Manufacturers Association, says businesses now have the knowledge and experience to keep their staff and customers safe under level 2.

"They're open to any suggestions of areas where they might need to look at enhancing outcomes for their staff and customers, maybe through the use of masks. But I think they're ready to go, and we just need to make sure that we don't make the situation worse than it already is...

"Every day we're seeing job losses, companies without revenue in the tank... every day is really costly for the economy and costly for workers. We don't want more job losses than need to be the case." 

While New Zealand's unemployment rate hasn't spiked as a result of the pandemic and lockdowns to date, a Wellington data agency Dot Loves Data says its analysis found 89 percent of all Auckland businesses have been relying on the Government's wage subsidy to stay in business.

Most at risk is south Auckland, spokesperson Justin Lester told Newshub, with much of the region's workforce on low wages.

"Those tend to be the first jobs that go during a downturn. If you're in south Auckland... you're 20 percent more likely to have received the wage subsidy than you are in other parts of Auckland. That's really bad news for south Auckland." 

Businesses in construction, retail and tourism were found to be the most likely to be receiving the subsidy, Lester said, and even more so if they were in Auckland.

"This is in direct contrast to agriculture, where about 30 percent of businesses are receiving the wage subsidy. In places like Waimate it's as low as 15 percent. Heartland New Zealand is underpinning the New Zealand economy at the moment." 

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce surveyed members last week and found about one-in-five don't believe they would survive another two weeks of lockdown. The Government's view has been the best economic response is a strong and effective health response - countries which taken more relaxed approaches have found themselves suffering just as badly economically, if not worse, while countries pursuing elimination strategies - such as New Zealand, Taiwan and other Asian nations - have been able to loosen restrictions earlier and more frequently. 

Dr Hendy says the only reason New Zealand isn't facing several weeks of lockdown, like Melbourne, is because we're at level 3.

"We're not going to find ourselves in the same situation as they have in Victoria. But the tricky thing with this disease is people who don't develop symptoms can still be infectious, and those are the people we are potentially missing. The way you learn about those people is just giving it time."