Coronavirus: Top COVID expert Michael Baker praises Mark Richardson's MIQ suggestion

It might sound unlikely, but one of the country's leading experts in infectious disease has backed a "very good" suggestion of how we could prevent another leak at the border from none other than Mark Richardson. 

After nearly half a year without any transmission of COVID-19, New Zealand was plunged into lockdown earlier this week after a single case of the highly contagious Delta variant was discovered in Auckland - at least another 20 cases have been found since then

A potential link to a person who arrived in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) nearly two weeks ago has been found, suggesting the virus snuck through despite the strict health and safety protocols.

Richardson, sportsreader on The AM Show, had a go at Michael Baker's job on Friday morning, telling the University of Otago epidemiologist anyone who arrives in MIQ should get a dose of the vaccine on day one, if they aren't already vaccinated.

"That's a very good suggestion," Dr Baker - who was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit at the start of the year - said. "Given the move to vaccinate everyone in New Zealand, I think we should look at that. I think that's a really good idea."

The current version of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine isn't as effective against the Delta variant as it is the original strain of COVID-19. While some countries are offering third shots to citizens to beef up their waning protection, the World Health Organization has said it would be better if those 'booster' shots were instead donated to poorer countries where many people haven't had the chance for a first dose. 

New Zealand's vaccine rollout is speeding up, but only after one of the slowest starts in the developed world. 

Longer lockdown locked-in?

Dr Baker's expecting at least another week in lockdown for the whole country. Restrictions outside of Auckland and Coromandel are set to lift at the end of the Friday, but Cabinet is set to meet Friday morning with their decision to be announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the afternoon. 

"I think the uncertain area really will be outside Auckland and Coromandel. The difficulty we know is the geographically targeted lockdown has been quite hard to manage in the past. There are ways you could do this, but that's one of the challenges. 

"I'm certain we'll see that - we'll go down the alert levels outside Auckland and Coromandel hopefully as soon as it's clear there are not cases outside of Auckland and that region." 

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

The difficulty is knowing whether people exposed to the virus up north travelled south before the lockdown was put in place. A recent study found symptoms appear on average nearly six days after infection - but shedding of the virus starts a couple of days earlier. 

"I think one of the big concerns with this outbreak that's different from ones we've had before is very much young people - many of them don't have many symptoms and they're not overly concerned about the outbreak. They have these huge social networks and they want to get out," said Dr Baker.

"The places of interest includes all the sorts of places young people like to go to. So one of the key things is all of us who have got teenage children and have got young adults in our families is to explain to them… why it really matters that they change their behaviour for the next two, three or four weeks. That's how we're going to get it under control." 

Dr Baker also called the low rate of vaccination for police staff - 40 percent - was a "loophole" in our "otherwise very effective" defence against the virus' spread. 

"They should be vaccinated and they should be wearing masks." 

Fewer Kiwis overall are vaccinated - one-third with at least one jab so far - but we're all "quarantining at home", as Dr Baker put it, not on the streets arresting people deliberately breaching stay-at-home orders.