COVID-19: WHO official's lockdown criticism probably doesn't apply to New Zealand - leading Kiwi health experts

A senior World Health Organization (WHO) official has condemned the use of lockdowns to restrict the spread of COVID-19 - but prominent Kiwi experts say the comments may not be directly applicable to New Zealand.

Dr David Nabarro, the WHO's special envoy for coronavirus, is appealing to world leaders to stop applying lockdowns as their primary control method and to instead "develop better systems".

He told British magazine The Spectator that lockdowns have a major consequence that is not being widely considered - they are "making poor people an awful lot poorer".

"Just look at what's happened to the tourism industry in the Caribbean, for example, or in the Pacific because people aren't taking their holidays. Look what's happened to smallholder farmers all over the world," he said.

"Look what's happening to poverty levels; it seems that we may well have a doubling of world poverty by next year. We may well have at least a doubling of child malnutrition.

"The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted - but by and large, we'd rather not do it."

Dr Nabarro's comments reflect those of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who at a media briefing in August said lockdowns should not be employed as a long-term solution for any country.

Why it likely doesn't apply to NZ

But Shaun Hendy, a Kiwi physicist, University of Auckland professor and one of the country's leading disease modelling experts, says Dr Nabarro's comments don't necessarily apply to New Zealand.

"We're not just relying on lockdowns in New Zealand. We're using all the tools we have at hand," he told Newshub. 

Just over a month ago, Dr Nabarro also told Magic Talk that New Zealand's coronavirus response had given "the rest of the world a lot to learn from".

"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 in late August.

"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."

Public health associate professor Dr Colin Tukuitonga said lockdowns were suitable for New Zealand's circumstances.

"What we've done is appropriate for New Zealand," he said.

Speaking to Newshub, Dr Tukuitonga was scathing of the envoy's one-eighty, saying the WHO "need to get their act together".

"New Zealand has done well. We're being held by the same WHO to the rest of the world as being one of the leading countries in terms of how we've gone about it," he said.

Hendy agreed.

"I look particularly at countries like the UK and other countries across Europe that haven't managed their lockdowns well, and are still struggling to test and trace.

"It's important that we're part of the game, that we're pulling our weight."

The other thing to consider, leading microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said, is that the definition of lockdown can vary substantially from country to country.

Auckland's recent alert level 3 lockdown, for instance, was milder than that applied by other countries battling the virus since its emergence at the start of 2020.

Melbourne's lockdown - which is still in effect more than two months after it started on August 2 - bans residents from leaving their houses for non-essential reasons and from travelling more than 5km. All non-essential businesses are closed and mask-wearing is mandatory in public.

Other stringent lockdowns included China's and Spain's early this year - and even now, Paris has shut all bars, bistros, gyms and swimming pools while Madrid has implemented a 15-day state of emergency, effectively barring movement in and out of the city.

Paris recently shut its bars, gyms and swimming pools.
Paris recently shut its bars, gyms and swimming pools. Photo credit: Reuters

Meanwhile the UK is telling residents of its worst-affected areas to stop all non-essential travel as Russia's capital, Moscow, closes schools and tells residents to work from home.

Calls for an end to lockdowns getting louder

Dr Nabarro's comments echo those made in the Great Barrington Declaration, a statement released on October 4 by a coalition of public health experts, calling for an end to lockdowns.

The declaration argues lockdowns are producing devastating health impacts of their own - including worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health - which disproportionately impact those in underprivileged positions.

"As immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all - including the vulnerable - falls. We know that all populations will eventually reach herd immunity and that this can be assisted by (but is not dependent upon) a vaccine," it reads.

"The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk."

The declaration has been widely panned by other public health experts.

Dr Rupert Beale, a biologist from Britain's Francis Crick Institute, says the suggestion countries can safely build up herd immunity is "wishful thinking", as it's not possible to fully identify nor isolate vulnerable individuals.

Meanwhile Dr Michael Head, a researcher at the University of Southampton, says it's based upon the false premise "that governments and the scientific community wish for extensive lockdowns to continue until a vaccine is available".

"Lockdowns are only ever used when transmission is high, and now that we have some knowledge about how best to handle new outbreaks, most national and subnational interventions are much ‘lighter’ than the full suppressions we have seen," he said.