Coronavirus: Expert says business leader's suggestion of shorter, more localised lockdowns would backfire

A prominent Auckland business leader has suggested ending coronavirus restrictions after just "two or three days" without new community cases.

Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett also wants future lockdowns to be applied to just suburbs, not entire cities - a prospect that's horrified a disease modelling expert, who says it would only make lockdowns last longer.

"In this instance, I think most people would have said, 'Can we shut down Papatoetoe? Can we expand the circle if we find more cases?'" Barnett told The AM Show on Thursday morning.

"Do we really have to shut down the whole of the Auckland region? Do we really have to close down the South Island? So a lot of questions... we have better science, we have better experience, surely we can do something smarter than shut down the whole of the business community that's damaging a whole economy unnecessarily." 

The latest cluster has centred on the Auckland suburb of Papatoetoe. There have been no new cases of community transmission since the weekend, yet the level 3 restrictions on the entire city are currently in place until at least Sunday.

Barnett said the Government moved fast to put Auckland into lockdown, and should be equally quick to take it out if the outbreak appears to be contained. 

"If we can have two or three days without community cases... can we now move fast out? Because we need to get back to business."

Most epidemiologists would beg to differ, saying it can take several days before we can be reasonably sure there aren't any more cases to be discovered. Test results for contacts potentially exposed at a gym, for example, aren't due until later on Thursday. Stays in managed isolation and quarantine at the border are 14 days because it can take that long for signs of the virus to show up in people. 

University of Auckland disease modeller Shaun Hendy has often advocated for caution when it comes to lowering alert levels. Last week, when the city went into lockdown, he said it could take a week to be sure any outbreak is contained, and we'd be "lucky" to lift restrictions by then. 

"We are proving to be lucky this time around," he told Newstalk ZB on Thursday.

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

Regional lockdowns?

"I think most businesses are starting to think, we have more science, we've got more experience - we're a year down the track on this, do we really have to shut down a whole region?" said Barnett.

The level 3 restrictions apply to the entire Auckland Council region. Announced on Saturday night and coming into force on Sunday morning, thousands fled the city - a "shitty thing to do" according to infectious diseases expert Siouxsie Wiles, with the potential to seed the virus elsewhere in the country.

Suburb-by-suburb lockdowns were tried in Melbourne last year at the end of June, but failed to stop a second wave that killed hundreds of people. 

"Melbourne attempted to contain an outbreak last year with suburb-specific lockdowns and it didn’t work," University of Canterbury disease modeller Michael Plank told Newshub.

"Unfortunately the virus doesn't know about postcodes and people often live, work and socialise in different parts of the city, bringing the potential for the virus to spread. In Melbourne, this meant the lockdowns were always a step behind the virus and the end result was a much longer lockdown being needed for the whole city. 

"It's also very difficult from a logistical and enforcement point of view if you have one street in lockdown and the next street not. It is difficult enough to manage one alert level boundary to the north of Auckland and one boundary to the south - trying to put an arbitrary boundary around specific suburbs would rapidly become chaotic. We were fortunate enough to be able to learn from Melbourne's mistakes - let's not make them ourselves."

Dr Hendy told Newshub when a cluster is discovered, "the chances that the cluster extends across the city is relatively high".

"Aucklanders tend to work, study etc a long way from where they live, so distant suburbs are often very connected. Because of this an early post-code lockdown is risky unless you are confident you know something about the chain of transmission."

He said it's possible postcode-specific restrictions could possibly work when lifting levels however.

"That being said, it is very difficult to enforce lockdowns at the post-code level. You’d be relying mostly on public compliance and it would probably lead to a lot of confusion."

Tony Blakely, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne, told RNZ in August once the virus is detected in one suburb, there's a good chance it's already in others - and locking off a suburb inside a city would require a huge mobilisation of law enforcement and military. 

"The virus is always ahead of you," he told Morning Report. "The Melbourne situation when we locked down 10 or 12 postcodes, yes the numbers were high there, but of course, they were also starting to go up in the areas outside of the hotspots, because the virus is always a week or two ahead of you...

"If there was one leakage into Auckland you'd probably want to first put into level 3 lockdown half of Auckland or all of Auckland. You'd need to have a very wide geographic range to get ahead of the virus... Unless you put a really hard ringfence around with military and police, completely sealing off the suburbs ... you have to extraordinary measures. So the hotspot strategy is looking not that great."

Shaun Hendy.
Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: The AM Show

Help for businesses

In better news, applications to help businesses hit by the lockdown open today. 

"Businesses have got a couple of opportunities - they can apply for the resurgence package, so that will cover them for the first lockdown and the second lockdown, so the Valentine week then this week," said Barnett. 

"They're able to claim $1500 per company and $400 per employee. They can do what they like with that money - it can cover their overheads, it can cover their rent. 

"And now you've got the wage subsidy - they can start applying for that today at 1pm, that's with the Ministry of Social Development, they'll start paying out on Monday. MSD are great operators, so I think you can be confident that money will be in the bank starting from Monday."