Coronavirus: No plans for Australia-style suburb lockdowns to stop future COVID-19 outbreaks - Peeni Henare

The Government has no plans for future lockdowns to be limited to just suburbs, rejecting suggestions by a prominent business leader this would benefit the economy.

Earlier this week Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett told The AM Show rather than shutting down all of Auckland next time there's a COVID-19 outbreak, health authorities should consider ringfencing only suburbs where it's been detected.

"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, talking about the latest cluster that saw Auckland put into level 3 restrictions for a week, and the rest of New Zealand into level 2. 

"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 source of the current outbreak still isn't known, and there were initially cases that couldn't be linked to each other - suggesting the outbreak might be wider than it seemed, prompting the rapid move to level 3. It was later found the cases were linked both genomically and through physical interaction. 

"The constant last-minute closures and restrictions on trading really do put financial pressure and emotional strain on us as business owners," Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois told Newshub. 

Barnett said after only two or three days of no cases, it should be fine to go back to level 2 or 1, contradicting advice from experts, who warn the virus can incubate for up to two weeks before making its presence known; or even spread asymptomatically. 

Associate Minister of Health Peeni Henare, appearing on Newshub Nation on Saturday morning, was asked if more focused lockdowns might be used in future outbreaks, rather than applying restrictions across the entire Auckland region - from Franklin in the south to Rodney in the north.

"It's certainly not on the agenda at the moment," he told host Simon Shepherd. "We're not out of the woods yet in regards to this current cluster... we're not even considering what a future lockdown might look like. We're dealing with this one." 

Melbourne tried a suburb-by-suburb restrictions in its outbreak mid-last year, but it failed miserably, plunging the city into a weeks-long lockdown. Sydney had more success with its local restrictions in December. 

Experts told Newshub this week they likely wouldn't work in Auckland. 

"It's... very difficult from a logistical and enforcement point of view if you have one street in lockdown and the next street not," University of Canterbury disease modeller Michael Plank said.

"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."

"Aucklanders tend to work, study etc a long way from where they live, so distant suburbs are often very connected," University of Auckland disease modeller Shaun Hendy added.

"Because of this an early post-code lockdown is risky unless you are confident you know something about the chain of transmission."

Dr Hendy said once the chain was understood, regional lifting of restrictions might work - but could lead to a "lot of confusion". 

The Government has frequently cited the lack of widespread transmission of COVID-19 in New Zealand as being behind our relatively good economic position compared to other countries. 

Auckland looks set to move to level 2 at 6am on Sunday, Henare confirming no new infections were picked up overnight.