Coronavirus: WHO official who criticised lockdowns praises NZ's 'robust' and 'rigorous' tracing and quarantine systems

A top World Health Organisation (WHO) official has talked up New Zealand's approach to keeping the virus out on US television.

David Nabarro, WHO special envoy on COVID-19, told CNN on Saturday morning (NZ time) our approach has "been robust and it's been rigorous".

"If you look at how New Zealand works, anybody who's got the virus, that starts immediate action in the area, contact tracing is done very carefully, and there is a lot of attention put into isolating people and isolating them properly if they're at risk of disease. 

"It's a much more diligent, hands-on and whole-hearted approach than we're seeing in other countries that have tended to wait around and not be so rigorous in dealing with it."

New Zealand has had only two outbreaks of community transmission. The first was stamped out earlier this year thanks to the nationwide lockdown, the second limited to just a few cases centred in Auckland. This was also stamped out with a localised, less restrictive lockdown, which began when there were only four cases.

Though Dr Nabarro has urged world leaders to find other ways to handle the pandemic, he said New Zealand could teach the world a thing or two.

"The lesson we've had from all over the world is you must deal with outbreaks at the very earliest stage. If the European countries can set up their systems so they can do that, then they will avoid a third wave. If they cannot do that, the third wave will build up and they will end up having to go back into third lockdown. It's as simple as that." 

Many European nations are under various levels of lockdown. Deaths in Italy and France right now are rivalling numbers seen back in March and April, the UK not far behind. Germany's daily death toll right now is the worst it's ever been.

And the US - where CNN is based - just posted its worst daily death toll yet, more being killed by the virus in a single day than the number who died in the 9/11 attacks of 2001. 

David Nabarro.
David Nabarro. Photo credit: Getty

Dr Nabarro made headlines in October when he said lockdowns should be a last resort, and only used to bide time until other systems such as contact tracing were in place. While many took that as criticism of the New Zealand approach, the WHO later clarified that advice was for countries already riddled with the virus.

"He certainly wasn't referring to New Zealand," said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris. 

New Zealand has avoided having to lock the entire country down again thanks to the strategies outlined by Dr Nabarro on CNN. 

With the first vaccines about to be rolled out in early-adopters like the UK, Bahrain and Russia, Dr Nabarro is urging people not to feel pressured into taking them. 

"I want to say to everybody that I know very well that there are many, many people who are hesitant about taking a vaccine against the new coronavirus, and I understand that. There are people in my family that are hesitant.

"What I want to say is, you decide what to do in your own time, in your own way. Don't feel you're being pushed by anyone to accept a vaccine that you don't want. If you don't feel ready to accept the vaccine when you're offered it, say 'give me time to think and perhaps I'll come back in a month's time and ask for it then'. Make the decision when you're ready to make it. 

"Do not feel pressurised because you have to be the one who decides when you're ready. Nobody else should make that decision for you."

He is confident the vaccines - even those being rushed into service - will be safe.

"I'm confident that the regulators are doing things super-carefully. They're not going to make any shortcuts, but I am also aware there are millions of people who are not sure... I'm happy to give advice, but I absolutely do not have the right to instruct anybody to do anything."