Coronavirus: Expert praises NZ's 'incredible courage' to go into total lockdown to wipe out COVID-19

A year on from the day New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown for the first - and to date, only - time, a leading epidemiologist has congratulated the country's politicians for doing the right thing.

The country shut down almost completely at 11:59pm on March 25, 2020, seeking to halt the spread of COVID-19 after seeing the carnage it had wrought overseas, particularly in Europe

Before then, the plan had been to just 'flatten the curve'. 

"Like the entire Western world, we were following our influenza mitigation strategy - and we changed at this moment," University of Otago infectious diseases expert Michael Baker told The AM Show on Thursday.

"When the decision was made to go to level 4, we took a completely different direction to the rest of the Western world, and that was to basically stamp out the virus entirely."

And it worked. While there have been localised temporary restrictions put in place intermittently since then in response to new outbreaks, unlike other Western countries we've managed to avoid yoyo-ing in and out of complete lockdowns. 

Scenes like those seen at Auckland's Spark Arena earlier this week - where Kiwi rock legends Crowded House played an indoor live concert to 12,000 people, few if any masked - are almost unique to New Zealand. 

"Obviously no one wants to go into lockdown, but it was I think by far the best choice for New Zealand," said Dr Baker. "I think it took incredible courage for our politicians, because they had to trust the science here and say, 'Actually, if we don't do this the consequences will be terrible.'

"At that point, we didn't know that it would work in New Zealand."

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: The AM Show

Dr Baker hopes it won't be needed again - but until vaccine coverage is wide enough to generate herd immunity, the alert level system will have a role to play.

"That's what's protecting New Zealand at the moment. But of course now we have an amazing range of very effective and safe vaccines that have been developed very quickly." 

While reported daily cases worldwide are on the rise again, in most places where the vaccine rollout is going well - such as Israel, US and the UK - infections have been dropping. In places where it hasn't, and there hasn't been a coherent nationwide lockdown response - such as Brazil - infections and deaths have been rapidly rising. 

"The vaccine has started to roll out, but it's having only a very small effect so far," said Dr Baker. "In fact, a year ago no one knew whether we could develop an effective vaccine. We've actually used public health measures to get us to this point, and it's still protecting New Zealand."

Our successful coronavirus response should help us stop any future pandemic in its tracks, he said - perhaps even without a full lockdown, localised level 3 measures having worked to contain COVID-19 since August. 

"There are many other viruses, literally thousands of other viruses in animal species that could jump the species barrier and cause another pandemic. That's why I think we have to learn as much as we can from our experience over the last year so we can avoid ever having to do such extreme measures again." 

New Zealand has had 26 deaths and 2470 confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19. All but four of the deaths occured in the first wave, between March and June.