Coronavirus: Senior World Health Organization official praises New Zealand's pandemic response, but suggests 'goal' of Swedish model

A senior World Health Organization (WHO) official has praised New Zealand's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but suggests the world slowly moves towards a model similar to Sweden's.

Dr David Nabarro, one of six special envoys to WHO on the virus, told The Ryan Bridge Drive Show on Magic Talk that New Zealand was strong from the beginning with its response and COVID-19 was taken seriously before there were a large number of cases.

But now Auckland has moved into a second lockdown - something he says WHO urges countries not to stay in for too long - steps need to be put in place so the virus can be lived with.

"I appreciate it's been extremely tough, especially because it's meant massive economic pain, but at the same time, by getting ahead of the virus at the beginning, you stopped there being a lot of virus in the country," he told Ryan Bridge.

"I think there you can show the rest of the world that the key is going to be to get on top of the virus and hold it at bay, because the virus is the enemy, people are the solution. I personally believe New Zealand is giving the rest of the world a lot to learn from."

He said it's important to use these short periods of "movement restrictions" to buy time and get organised to stop the virus getting out of hand.

"The two pieces of advice I'd have for anyone on this is please try to make sure everybody knows what's happening and why, so there's not a lot of people feeling a sense that they're in the dark," Dr Nabarro said.

"And secondly, as quickly as possible, get the economy and social life moving again so that it is possible for people to realise that you can go about life, while having the virus in your midst and keep ahead of it."

But he said now comes the difficult part where considerations need to be made to keep the economy going and to also restart school and social lives in a way that suits New Zealanders.

While he said there's "still quite a lot" to be worked out from aspects of Sweden's response, it's important to look at the trajectory ahead.

"I think for all countries, the real approach we've got to aim for is that the public is able to reduce the spread of this virus through behaviour, behaviour that is adopted everywhere, and then that means the virus is at bay," he said.

"You do everything possible to avoid the lockdowns, and in that regard, I think comparison with Sweden and with other countries that are able to get going again without major lockdowns, that's the right comparison and that's the goal of the future."

Sweden has been criticised for its 'herd immunity' approach. While most neighbouring countries imposed strict lockdowns, social distancing and the use of face masks to stop the spread, the Scandinavian nation has instead relied on voluntary social distancing.

Sweden has recorded nearly 87,000 cases and over 5800 deaths.

Dr Nabarro was quick to add he doesn't like comparing countries or saying that one is better than the other.

"The key thing about their approach was that the government was able to trust the public, and the public was able to trust the government. Where you've got trust between public and government is where you get a good result."

However, he acknowledged that even following the Swedish approach it will be necessary to occasionally have restrictions.

"It will be necessary from time to time, when you're nervous about what's happening and you don't know where the cases are coming from, to do a little bit of local movement restriction in order to help you to get in and work out what's happening."

"It buys you just a little bit of time and it's a key part of the strategy but it's definitely not long periods, months after months, of people not being able to move around."

Earlier in August, University of Otago professor of public health Michael Baker warned that the risks from an approach like Sweden's often outweigh the benefits. 

"Taking a 'herd immunity' approach would result in large numbers of deaths and people left with severe chronic illness."

University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles agreed, saying that Sweden's approach risks the lives of vulnerable people and fails to take into account the long term health impacts. 

"It is very difficult to protect all those who would be vulnerable to having a severe COVID-19 infection, so comes with the risk that many people will die unnecessarily."

"Another problem is that there are more and more reports coming out of people experiencing symptoms for months and months and the risk that even a mild infection could cause long term health problems. It's a very risky approach."

While there hasn't yet been hints New Zealand will adopt Sweden's approach, ACT leader David Seymour suggested earlier in August that Taiwan's model should be followed instead.

"Some people would say we need to be like Sweden, that's wrong - we need to be like Taiwan who managed to minimise the impact of COVID-19 and their economy simultaneously," he said.

"I've been saying for some time we need to get smarter about public health, we need to treat people from different countries differently depending on risk, we need to augment our public response with better technology in partnership with the private sector."

His comments followed an announcement days earlier from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern where she had extended lockdown restrictions for Auckland.

She said COVID-19 is the "world's new normal" and that the Government is working as hard as it can to "make sure that our new normal disrupts our lives as little as possible".