'COVID-19 could be here for 5 to 10 years': Sir Brian Roche says NZ needs may need long-term coronavirus response unit

An expert advisor to the Government on COVID-19 is warning New Zealand may need a dedicated response unit to oversee the country's response for the next five to 10 years.

Sir Brian Roche says officials need to continuously rehearse worst-case scenarios to ensure contact tracing staff can cope in the event of a significant outbreak.

He knows another outbreak is on the horizon - and to handle it, he says New Zealand needs practice.

"We need to continue to do scenario-planning and stress-testing. The All Blacks didn't get to where they are today by just turning up for a game. They practiced, practiced, practiced," he told Newshub.

Stress-testing is a bit like asking a contact-tracing team to make 300 calls in 10 minutes to see how they perform.

One practice run was recently held in Queenstown, which simulated an outbreak at an aged-care facility. A separate exercise in preparation for an outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant was also held in the past fortnight. 

The Ministry of Health says the exercises are based on worst-case scenarios.

But Sir Brian says more such planning is needed - and not just in New Zealand's main centres.

"In a way, some of the casualness that exists in the provinces is misplaced. There's a lot of ports in this country. There are entry points which are not just Auckland - and we need to be prepared."

In the past, New Zealand hasn't always been well-placed to handle an outbreak of the virus. 

Sir Brian Roche.
Sir Brian Roche. Photo credit: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Newshub revealed that during last year's August outbreak, contact tracing teams were "too slow" to respond and employed staff with "no training or experience". 

And during the February outbreak, "limited resources" and "staff burnout" were flagged as problems almost immediately, even though there was only a peak of 15 active cases in the community. 

"If we don't use the next few months wisely, that could be a real concern," says Sir Brian.

Experts recommend that New Zealand needs to become capable of tracing 1000 cases a day - and their contacts - but Sir Brian says we're not there yet. 

"A thousand is a very credible number and something that we are still aspiring to, and that would be our base capacity."

And improving capacity is critical - COVID-19 is no longer seen as a short-lived pandemic. 

"This could be here for five to 10 years," Sir Brian warns.

And that, he says, means we need a separate entity - not the Ministry of Health - running the response.

Sir Roche believes a stand-alone agency is needed to have total oversight, accountability and decision-making power.

The Health Ministry told Newshub decisions about the structure of public sector agencies are made by the Government.

But a spokesperson did say the ministry has already developed "a national outbreak response team" which uses resources from district health boards and public health units. 

The spokesperson said other networks would also be used in the event of an outbreak, "such as local Civil Defence and emergency management groups." 

The ministry says public health teams no longer work independently when outbreaks occur and work is now delegated across the country.