Coronavirus: Expert questions whether the travel bubble with Australia is worth it

A prominent medical expert says the Government's got its risk appetite backwards when it comes to the trans-Tasman travel bubble.

Instead of looking for reasons to shut it down, it should be looking for reasons to keep it open, says University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman.

"We simply can't afford another lockdown," he told The AM Show on Thursday, noting fewer than 10 percent of Kiwis are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Contact tracing is not very good. We need to have zero risk tolerance."

Only about one in 15 Kiwi adults had been using the NZ COVID Tracer app before the latest scare in Wellington - caused by an Australian tourist who visited the city last weekend before testing positive upon their return to Sydney. 

The easier it is for contact tracers to locate everyone who might have been exposed, the greater chance a lockdown won't be needed. Luckily - unlike most New Zealanders - the tourist was using the app.

Travel from New South Wales, or from anywhere if you've recently been in New South Wales, is currently on pause. The travel bubble has previously been paused after outbreaks in Victoria. 

Dr Gorman thinks the risk is too great. 

"The question each day is not, 'is there a reason to close the bubble down?' The question each day is, 'are there reasons to keep the bubble open?' We've got our risk appetite back to front." 

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

It's not just vaccinations and use of the Tracer app that need to improve before we can safely open the borders, he thinks - the Ministry of Health also needs to up its game. Dr Gorman says it was too slow to notify the public of the potential exposure in Wellington.

Despite knowing about the case on Tuesday night, it didn't go public until Wednesday morning. By then most Kiwis had already heard about it via Australian media reports.

"Yesterday all those people went to work in Wellington who shouldn't have gone to work - they should have been forewarned the previous evening," said Dr Gorman. "The argument was 'there's a process we have to follow and we have to sort out the risk' and so on. I don't accept that. Just put the names out there, and if the next day you have to edit them, so be it."

He said most people would have been okay with being told to stay home unnecessarily, if the alternative was going to work and potentially being exposed to the virus.

"We keep encountering these things as if it's the first time we've encountered them as if there's no plan, as if there's no memory... We're putting a very complex task on a bunch of bureaucrats who are used to doing policy work. I feel sorry for them - they're simply not up to the job." 

Part of the reason he thinks could be due to our success in wiping out the virus last year, which was praised worldwide. 

"Once you paint yourself into that corner, it's very hard to cut and change and say things need to be improved." 

In April, senior Labour MP David Parker told The AM Show the response at the border had been "damn-near perfect", which Dr Gorman laughed off.

"Near-perfect as in Earth is near Mars in galactic terms."