Coronavirus: WHO official's anti-lockdown comments aimed at virus-ridden countries, not NZ - experts

Anti-lockdown comments by a top World Health Organization (WHO) official were aimed at countries battling widespread transmission of the virus because they failed to go hard and go early like New Zealand, a local expert says.

And another has suggested the comments, made by WHO special envoy on COVID-19 David Nabarro, actually back up New Zealand's strategy, rather than contradict it. 

Dr Nabarro last week published an article saying lockdowns "just freeze the virus in place", and it could be years before a vaccine can be rolled out globally.

He used stronger language in a follow-up interview with The Spectator, saying there was likely to be massive increases in global poverty and related problems like malnutrition if other ways of fighting the spread of the virus weren't prioritised.

"This is a terrible, ghastly global catastrophe actually," he told the British magazine. "And so, we really do appeal to all world leaders - stop using lockdown as your primary control method. Develop better systems for doing it. Work together and learn from each other. But remember, lockdowns just have one consequence that you must never, ever belittle - that is making poor people an awful lot poorer." 

Anti-lockdown activists like controversial University of Auckland epidemiologist Simon Thornley and his Plan B group pounced on Dr Nabarro's comments.

"We have drawn attention to the severe and disproportionate financial costs of lockdown policies in New Zealand," Dr Thornley said. "Crippling our economies and sacrificing our children's education can no longer be justified, since the harm from these policies outweighs any benefits." 

But other experts here disagree. University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker says Dr Nabarro's comments are aimed at "Europe and North America and some low-income countries where they have on-going circulation of the virus at quite high levels".

"The problem is many of those countries are going in and out of lockdown, and it can't be sustained. That is a very different context from New Zealand and much of the Asia-Pacific region, where we're going for elimination. 

"In our context, very short-term, highly targeted lockdowns can be very useful for stamping out the virus - as we've seen in New Zealand. The WHO is actually holding up New Zealand, Taiwan and countries in Asia as being a model for responding to the pandemic. So I think the comments from one of the WHO doctors are not relevant to New Zealand at all." 

Dr Baker said Dr Nabarro is correct in that "long, sustained lockdowns are not the best approach for COVID-19" - and that's not what New Zealand has done, opting for an initial short, tough lockdown to get rid of the virus, then targeted restrictions - along with advice and rules on mask-wearing - when it reemerged. 

David Nabarro.
David Nabarro. Photo credit: Getty

Seven weeks under levels 3 and 4 earlier this year might have seemed like a long time, but New Zealanders now enjoy more freedoms than most of the world - including the poster child for the anti-lockdown movement, Sweden, according to the University of Oxford's Government Response Stringency Index. 

NZ's approach consistent with Nabarro's advice - Baker

Dr Nabarro's comments that lockdowns should be used "buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources" is arguably exactly what New Zealand has done.

"We're not aiming for long-term lockdowns or going in and out of lockdowns, which is unfortunately the situation for much of Europe and North America. As we discovered with the recent Auckland cluster and the small cluster in Christchurch, we've now built up our other capacity so we can hopefully manage smaller, medium-sized outbreaks if we get them again, by using high-volume testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, with also use of masks and limited restrictions."

Dr Baker said wealthy European and North American countries could have done what we did too, and colleagues overseas he's talked to know this, but their political leaders were far too slow off the mark. 

'Use lockdowns wisely'

Shaun Hendy.
Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: Getty

Shaun Hendy, a theoretical physicist at the University of Auckland who's helped the Government out with modelling of how the virus spreads, told The AM Show Dr Nabarro's comments were "quite general advice" that don't conflict with New Zealand's approach.

"The way I'd interpret it is you use lockdowns wisely - New Zealand is a country that has used lockdowns wisely."

He said Dr Naborro was correct that lockdowns won't work for every country.

"I remember talking to one of my counterparts in Indonesia quite early on about how lockdown simply wasn't possible in a country like Indonesia - they don't have the social support infrastructure to actually see people through a lockdown, whereas we do in New Zealand."

Dr Hendy says Dr Nabarro was also right in saying lockdowns should be used as a last resort.

"We were underprepared, I think that's fair to say... We used that time wisely - we ramped up our contact tracing, we ramped up our testing. It wasn't perfect, but compared to a lot of countries we did pretty well."

In August, Dr Nabarro praised New Zealand's elimination success.

"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 Magic Talk. 

"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."