Coronavirus: The numbers behind Auckland's path out of lockdown

A leading epidemiologist is predicting an extension to Auckland's level 3 lockdown, with a handful of new COVID-19 cases still being reported every day.

The city's restrictions are in place until at least 11:59pm on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Cabinet set to reveal the next steps on Monday. 

University of Otago's Michael Baker is predicting the level 3 period will be extended, just like the first lockdown.

"We do have to wait to see if the downward trend is really sustained," he told Magic Talk's Road to the Election show on Sunday.

"It is tracking down, but I think we'd want to see a few days where we have really consistently under five cases maybe - ideally some days with no cases or one case, just so we're really comfortable with that. The difficulty is there may be some branches of this cluster which haven't declared themselves yet."

That's because the disease can take several days to show itself.

"The difficulty with this disease is you're always looking backwards - the incubation period can be up to 12 days. It means unfortunately, we have to be a bit patient with it." 

Outside of managed isolation facilities, the Ministry of Health is only testing people who have symptoms or have been deemed a contact of a known case. But while around 40 percent of all new cases of the disease come from asymptomatic transmission, studies have found, Prof Baker says there's a good reason we're not testing anyone and everyone.

"For the wider population, we really need to focus on those with symptoms. We can't do the full Wuhan treatment where they tested 11 million people in a month. We're not going to do that here." 

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: RNZ/supplied

Another problem is fewer than half of all adults have downloaded the NZ COVID Tracer app, and not everyone can remember where they've been and who they've been in contact with. 

Prof Baker said this is where something like the proposed Bluetooth COVID card could be useful - detecting close contacts on a person-to-person level. 

Despite this still only in the trial stage, Prof Baker says New Zealand has done exceptionally well to date.

"We've got the lowest mortality in the OECD - people who say we should be more like Sweden, well, their mortality is 100 times higher than New Zealand. Their economy is performing no better, possibly worse. Look at the countries who are pursuing elimination with huge energy - mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam - they're all doing exceptionally well... they don't want a bar of this virus, and their economies are thriving. 

"I know where I'd rather be - I'd be following the Asian model. I wouldn't be following the North American model." 

ACT leader David Seymour also backs the Taiwan model, saying they've managed to hold off the virus without having to enact a full lockdown, thanks to their experience with previous outbreaks of diseases like dengue, bird flu and SARS. He told Road to the Election Taiwan has a "multi-disciplinary" pandemic response unit which sprung into action, bringing in not just health officials but tech gurus and the private sector.

"What Taiwan shows is that if you have a dedicated organisation that brings together all of the Government departments and the private sector... you can do better. If you use data and technology [and the COVID card] you can trace faster. 

"We could have traced everybody and been back in business by now, but because contact tracing is not good enough, I suspect sadly Auckland will face an extended lockdown because they're not catching up with it." 

Asked if that was what National was proposing with its border protection agency, Seymour said not quite.

"The Nats are on the right track... but it's not just about the border. The border is important, but any border system is going to have mistakes. The question is how quickly can you get on top of an outbreak when someone eventually, inevitably does get through the border." 

Prof Baker said Sunday and Monday's new case numbers will be critical in the Government's decision on what to do next, calling on Ardern to be "cautious". 

"The risk of getting this wrong, the consequences are so high."