Coronavirus: 'Short, sharp lockdown' prevented wider outbreak, 'more dramatic' measures - Chris Hipkins

People who ignore alert level restrictions and fail to track their movements are increasing the chances of a longer, "more dramatic" lockdown next time COVID-19 is detected in the community, Chris Hipkins has warned. 

Auckland joined the rest of the country at alert level 1 on Tuesday, just eight days after new cases were discovered in the city. There have been a few cases of transmission since then, but all are linked to the same cluster.

"We're not seeing anything through our pretty extensive testing that causes any further alarm," Hipkins, the minister responsible for the country's COVID-19 response, told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"We did see one extra case yesterday - that was not unexpected... we were anticipating that. Nothing extra is popping up."

Auckland's rapid move from level 3 - just one step down from a full lockdown - to level 1 contrasts with the England's just-announced plans to exit its long-running lockdown. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday (NZ time) revealed a phased opening up that isn't expected to be completed by late June, at the earliest.

"We are in an incredibly fortunate position, I can understand why New Zealanders are feeling confident - but confidence shouldn't mean complacency," Hipkins said.

"We can feel good about what we've managed to achieve, the very, very rare position that we're in relative to the rest of the world - I think we should feel good about that... but if we want to keep enjoying that success, we've got to remain very vigilant as well." 

Use of the Government's COVID Tracer app ebbs and flows, typically rising after a case is detected in the community. There were about twice as many scans each day in the past week than the week before, but use remains below where it was in September last year. 

While more use is good, contact tracers need to look backwards to find people who have already potentially been exposed. 

"The contact tracing system relies on everyone continuing to be vigilant, particularly around things like those QR code scans. That's how we get ahead of it - it means when there's a case, if a case pops up, if we can quickly contact-trace that then that makes it far less likely we're going to end up with further alert level escalations in the future." 

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

AM Show host Duncan Garner said he met a man at the weekend who proudly boasted of not using the app because he didn't want to be a "yuppie" with a cellphone. Hipkins said he didn't have to - keeping a paper diary would work too.

"The key question for everybody is if you tested positive for COVID-19 or you were sitting next to someone who tested positive... then you had to go back and identify everywhere you'd been over the last two weeks, could you do it? ... I would argue no one's memory is that good." 

The source of the latest outbreak remains a mystery. Although it was the highly infectious UK variant, the lockdown appears to have contained its spread, with no new cases of community transmission reported overnight.

"Ultimately that was a very precautionary short, sharp lockdown that we did to make sure we didn't have community transmission. If we had community transmission, the lockdown would have significantly reduced the potential for that to spread further, therefore again reduce the risk of us having to do something more dramatic for a longer period of time."

'It was quite hard to track down everyone' 

One of the big differences with level 1 now is that masks are mandatory on public transport - but they're not in other public enclosed places. Hipkins said while he wouldn't discourage use of masks in public, transport posed some unique challenges.

"You tend to be next to somebody or a group of people for a longer period of time, so that increases the risk. It's difficult to contact trace exactly who was on the bus and where they sat on the bus, so that makes it a little bit more tricky than say a supermarket, where largely it would be a very passing interaction that you might have with someone as you walk past them, so the risk there is very low.

"I certainly wouldn't discourage people from wearing masks, but the risk assessment that we've done is that actually, it's when you're in a confined space - like a bus or a train, when you're exposed to people for prolonged periods of time, that's where the transmission is more likely to occur.

The Auckland/September outbreak in Auckland last year included a case of a bus driver testing positive.  A study published around the same time found an asymptomatic passenger on a bus in China infected nearly two dozen other people early in the pandemic, when there were only a few hundred known cases in the world.

"Bearing in mind we're still in a very low-risk environment here, but what we know from our past experience is when we had a case who was on a bus, it was quite hard to track down everyone else who was on the bus and get them tested. If people are wearing a mask, it means the risk has already been significantly reduced."