Coronavirus: Ministry of Health modelling how bad COVID outbreaks would be once restrictions taken off

Health Minister Andrew Little says moving Auckland out of alert level 4 remains the plan, with the daily numbers "looking good" and none of Tuesday's cases unable to be linked to previously known cases. 

But the threat of a future lockdown can only be dismissed when the Government's confident an outbreak wouldn't overwhelm the health system, he told The AM Show on Wednesday morning.

"We know that the restrictions are going to come off - they have to come off," Little said. "We want to open the borders, we want people to start gathering in decent numbers and go to concerts and that sort of stuff, but we can only do that when vaccination rates are high.

"We are starting on that trajectory, we're well into that trajectory, but we need to make sure the health system is capable of coping if there is an outbreak under those changed circumstances. So this is what we're working on." 

Little said last week he asked Ministry of Health officials to come up with a plan on how to deal with the unavoidable cases that will result from a lifting of restrictions, including at the border. 

"They have been working on that. I'm expecting a specific strategy in the next three or four weeks on what it looks like when we don't resort to lockdowns," he said.

"We're looking around the world to see what other countries are doing. On the weekend I was talking to my Australian counterpart, the Minister of Health there Greg Hunt and what they are doing. Their strategy is very much about maximising anybody who is infected with COVID to be cared for in the community, be cared for in the home, with health services being able to ring in, check in on a daily basis, provide help. And if there's an indication someone needs to be hospitalised, that can happen."

New Zealand has relatively few ICU beds per capita compared to many other nations, though there is surge capacity available in the worst-case scenario of a massive outbreak. New Zealand's strategy to date has been elimination, using strict lockdowns to prevent outbreaks getting out of control and flooding hospitals with patients. 

When hospitals are overrun, as has happened overseas at times during the pandemic, the quality of care drops - and not just for COVID patients. Little said if people can be treated at home, that frees up critical hospital beds for those who really need them, whether they have COVID or not. 

"Getting the hospitals geared up with the right facilities in the right places to be able to accommodate people not just in ICU but on wards as well - specific dedicated COVID wards - I've asked the Ministry of Health to look at all of that, do some modelling about what numbers we might expect. 

"In the end, the way we avoid putting undue pressure on the health system is maximising the number of people who are vaccinated. We've really got to get those numbers up." 

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: The AM Show

While Delta is infectious enough it can still be caught and spread by the vaccinated, they're at far less risk of illness or death

"The benefit of being vaccinated is the consequences for you are much less - much lower chance of having to go to hospital and needing that level of care."

We've currently got just over a third of the 12-plus population fully vaccinated, and just over two-thirds with one dose. About 70 percent have either had their second jab or are booked in to get it. While that would reach the National Party's threshold for opening up, the Government has declined to set a target - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday saying there would still be regions with lower coverage than that left vulnerable. Māori vaccinations have also lagged behind, despite being at increased risk. 

"In regions like Northland for example, where vaccination rates are lower compared to other parts of New Zealand, we need to get those rates up," said Little. "The message to people everywhere is vaccination isn't just about you and your own health. It's actually about your family, your whanau, your loved ones, your community."

Modelling is being done to try and work out what level of vaccination coverage would prevent hospitals being overwhelmed. Little said the experts are trying out a range of figures.

"It really depends on what your vaccination rates are, and we know there are slight regional variations. It's hard to put a single number on it, except that even with a highly vaccinated population, once the borders are open that risk sort of goes up. 

"People will continue to be infected, but the consequences for them will be less, so therefore less pressure on the public health system. But it's hard to put hard numbers on it." 

As for a target, Little would only say he'd like New Zealand to "lead the world in vaccination rates". Leading the way currently are Malta, Portugal, UAE, Spain and Singapore, who all have around - or in excess of - 80 percent coverage.