Coronavirus: British neoliberal think tank researcher Matthew Lesh says NZ is 'stuck in a weird kind of COVID purgatory'

A member of a right-wing British think tank has claimed New Zealand is "stuck in a weird kind of COVID purgatory" thanks to a slow vaccine rollout and "fetish" for not having any cases of the deadly disease. 

In a column for The Telegraph last week, Matthew Lesh of the Adam Smith Institute said New Zealand is now an "isolated dystopia where liberties are taken away in a heartbeat and outsiders are shunned", and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had "shown little serious interest in protecting her people". 

New Zealand's elimination strategy was hailed worldwide last year.

Appearing on The AM Show on Wednesday, Lesh said it wouldn't work against the much more infectious Delta variant, which was first found in India late last year. 

"I think New Zealand has done extremely well eliminating the virus, and last year certainly limited deaths while maintaining economic growth," he said, appearing live from the UK.

"But I think what worked in 2020 is not necessarily the same strategy as what's a good idea in 2021. The Delta variant makes elimination extremely difficult, if not impossible, while vaccines make the strategy unnecessary."

The Adam Smith Institute where Lesh is head of research is a neoliberal think tank based in the UK, which tried an ill-fated herd immunity strategy against the original strain of the virus in early 2020. Widespread transmission of the virus resulted in a variant, later dubbed Alpha, which combined with an early lifting of restrictions drove a new wave of infection and death over the new year period.

To date the UK has reported more than 155,000 deaths to COVID-19, and New Zealand just 26. The UK is in the midst of a fourth wave of infections, driven by Delta, but thanks to its successful vaccine rollout is only reporting dozens of deaths a day, rather than several hundred. At its peak, the UK recorded 1800 deaths in a single day. 

"Unfortunately because New Zealand has been quite slow to vaccinate, you're more or less stuck in a weird kind of COVID purgatory here," said Lesh, whose numerous qualifications listed on the Adam Smith Institute website don't include epidemiology. 

"You've had this outbreak of the Delta variant, you've got a quite vulnerable population because you're largely unvaccinated and as a result you're facing this severe lockdown. Much of the rest of the world is watching on in bafflement thinking, we're moving on with COVID, we've accepted that we have to live with some level of ongoing risk, we're going to vaccinate, we're going to save as many people as possible but life is not a zero-risk proposition. 

"We have to get on with things eventually, we have to learn to live with the virus."

Matthew Lesh.
Matthew Lesh. Photo credit: The AM Show

New modelling released this week has found living "with the virus" would likely result in an annual death toll similar to that of influenza, provided 90 percent of us were vaccinated. No country on Earth has reached 90 percent coverage yet, the best in the mid-70s. The UK is at 62 percent, and its latest daily death figure was 174 - the worst since March.

Lesh claimed the vaccine makes Delta "comparable to the flu" when it comes to mortality. He did not comment on the potential long-term health effects, which research has found can include increased risk of blood clots, MIS-C, lowered cognitive ability and the mysterious condition dubbed 'long COVID'. A new study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found long COVID patients report worse symptoms than people with cancer.

Prime Minister Jacinda  Ardern, responding to similar comments by her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, on Monday evening said the elimination strategy had resulted in "fewer cases, we've had fewer deaths, our economy has done better".

"What I want very much for all of us is, over the next period of time through to the end of the year, is that we eliminate COVID again and that we get as many people as possible vaccinated, and then we look in the New Year - with all of the research and evidence we have - as to what the new strategy is from there. 

"But for now, elimination, vaccination - those are the two really important points."

Lesh said he was disappointed to hear that.

"Zero-COVID is addictive, it does feel good to have no COVID - but it also makes people very fearful. It's politically very hard to get out of - once you have that demand for zero cases that demand will continue, even when you manage to vaccinate people."

New Zealand is currently ranked the third-best place in the world to be right now on the Forbes COVID Resilience Ranking. The UK, despite its vaccine rollout and recent reopening, is 25th.

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker responded to Lesh's coloumn, saying "China, Taiwan, Singapore and several states of Australia have proven that you can successfully obtain Delta".

"The relative performance of the elimination strategy in the longer-term is less certain," he did admit however.

"On balance, I think there are big advantages for New Zealand continuing the elimination strategy for at least the medium-term until the population is highly vaccinated. This approach keeps our options open.

"This assessment is not forever, and will need to be reviewed regularly as the pandemic and state of science knowledge continue to evolve."