COVID-19: The cases for and against extending coronavirus lockdown in New Zealand

Cabinet is set to decide whether to extend the COVID-19 lockdown, and there is a myriad of perspectives to consider, from health experts who fear the virus could make a comeback to economists who say businesses are at a tipping point. 

With just nine new cases of coronavirus reported in New Zealand on Monday, the arguments for relieving Kiwis of the heavy alert level 4 lockdown restrictions and allowing some businesses to operate are flooding in. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will make the announcement at 4pm and you can see it live on Three. 

Economist Cameron Bagrie is warning that unemployment is set to "surge" from the economic strain lockdown has put on businesses, and believes unemployment could get worse than when it peaked at 6.7 percent during the Global Financial Crisis. 

The Government has spent more than $9 billion subsidising the wages of more than a million New Zealanders so far, with billions more expected to be paid out in the coming months, and Cabinet has not yet figured out how to pay for it all

Treasury's latest figures show a massive spike in Jobseeker support, business confidence at a record low, and retail spending way down. 

Unemployment in the world's largest economy is also alarmingly high, with 16 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last three weeks, which could have serious economic consequences for the rest of the world. 

The Government will take into account whether the economic risk of extending the lockdown in New Zealand is worth it from a health perspective. 

The risk of losing progress 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern acted quickly on COVID-19 by locking down the nation on March 26, and she was praised globally for it, as it became clear that New Zealand's COVID-19 case numbers and related deaths were enviably low. 

As the number of new cases in New Zealand began to decline into the low teens over the past couple of weeks, Ardern urged Kiwis not to get too excited because the last thing she wants is to do is switch between alert levels. 

"It is important to remember that this is going to be a long-term project for us all."

Auckland University Professor Shaun Hendy, an expert on modelling how the coronavirus spreads, wants the lockdown extended for another two weeks to strengthen our chances of eliminating it. 

He says New Zealand is "on track to contain or eliminate the virus" with the current reproduction rate - how likely it is that the virus will be passed on - at about 0.5 percent, but that could change if the lockdown rules are loosened. 

"It would make sense to delay lifting the lockdown as we know level 4 works. If it was up to me, I'd be leaning towards taking a little bit longer, make sure those numbers were heading to zero."

Epidemiologist Siouxsie Wiles is also urging caution about reducing the alert level. She says the reason COVID-19 hasn't had a devastating effect on New Zealand is because of the lockdown measures. 

"If we hadn't gone into lockdown, cases would have continued to grow exponentially and the same thing that has happened to hospitals in other countries would have happened to ours."

New Zealand compared to the world

Spain, Italy, India, France and the UK are among nations that have, or are exploring, extending their lockdowns. Italy has extended it until May, while Spain is seeking to extend it with eased restrictions for children as deaths top 20,000.  

Less stringent approaches to tackling the virus have led to disaster. The UK started out with lockdown for the vulnerable, while everyone else carried on as normal, hoping to reach herd immunity, or a built-up collective resistance to the virus. 

But the number of cases and deaths soon spiralled out of control in the UK and Prime Minister Boris Johnson - who caught the virus himself - eventually, ordered a complete lockdown, which on Sunday was extended for "at least" three more weeks.   

Sweden took a similar approach of protecting the vulnerable while allowing the rest of the nation to operate as usual while exercising caution. But the number of cases has now topped 14,000 while the number of deaths is more than 1500. 

And despite a stated aim of protecting the elderly, a third of Sweden's fatalities have been in care homes. Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has now admitted the nation faces a "serious situation" in its elderly homes. 

By comparison New Zealand has reported just 12 deaths so far and 1440 cases, and that progress could be lost if the Government eases the lockdown restrictions. But is it worth it if the economy is ripped apart?

Striking the right balance

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters says there is a "balance" to be struck.

Police are also under immense pressure to enforce the lockdown rules, with more than 2700 breaches reported since the lockdown began. 

But if the alert level is dropped down to 3, and the new rules are not clearly understood, clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland says it could lead to an increase in "frustration, stress and narking"

There is already confusion about the alert level 3 guidelines released last week. Parents would be allowed to send their children back to school if they "need to" - a policy Otorohanga College Principal Traci Liddall predicts will be a "shambles". 

The Government is also facing criticism about the modelling it released which influenced its decision to implement a lockdown. It cited data showing up to 14,000 deaths if the virus spread in New Zealand. 

Economic modeller Ian Harrison has described the modelling as "grossly overstated" because it assumed there would be no tracing and isolation of cases. 

The Ministry of Health's contact tracing programme is currently being audited by Otago University infectious diseases specialist Dr Ayesha Verrall who will assess whether it has been good enough. 

The Government will announce whether the lockdown will be extended at 4pm. 

You can read more about alert level 3 here.