MPs question New Zealand's COVID-19 lockdown as Australia's lighter approach produces similar results

Australia and New Zealand have seen similar cases of COVID-19 on a per capita basis, despite Australia allowing construction and retail to continue, prompting some New Zealand MPs to question the Government's lockdown approach. 

Professor Brendan Murphy, Australia's Chief Medical Officer, told the Epidemic Response Committee on Tuesday that Australia's focus has been on reducing gatherings rather than halting every industry, and Opposition MPs say it's in contrast to New Zealand. 

"Our recommendations have always been that physical distancing measures could be in place for several months and therefore we wanted to recommend to government that measures needed to be considered within that sustainability lens," Prof Murphy said. 

He said the Australian Government focused on closing major gatherings of any size such as pubs and clubs, cinemas and gyms, which were considered not absolutely essential to the economy. 

New Zealand took a similar approach at first, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing a ban on gatherings as the number of cases of the virus started increasing, but eventually, New Zealand was put into a month-long lockdown. 

In Australia, construction, manufacturing and retail were allowed to continue throughout the pandemic under rules such as one person per four square metres.

National MP Paul Goldsmith is now questioning New Zealand's approach, pointing out that the two nations have had similar results per capita. 

Australia has recorded more than 6000 cases and 61 deaths compared to New Zealand's more than 1300 cases and five deaths, but Australia's population is almost 25 million compared to New Zealand's 4.8 million - five times more people.  

ACT leader David Seymour said Australians are being "treated like adults" by their Government and are achieving "better results". 

"Australia appears to be having its cake and eating it too, as it gets achieves better COVID-19 health outcomes than New Zealand with fewer restrictions on economic activity."

Otago University Professor and epidemiologist David Skegg said while it's true that Australia has seen similar results to New Zealand, he said there are five times as many people in hospital than in New Zealand, with 378 compared to 15. 

He described Australia's overall results as an "enigma". 

He also pointed out that the reason for New Zealand's hard lockdown approach is to try and get New Zealand out of lockdown as soon as possible, whereas in Australia the current measures might have to go on for months. 

Prof Murphy said if things had gotten worse in Australia, the Australian Government would have considered closing construction, manufacturing and retail. 

But he said the Australian Cabinet, with the support of the health advice, "felt that we should take a range of measures, particularly focused on reducing gatherings and reducing the density of people in rooms". 

He said Australian authorities "found that to be a very understandable concept for people". 

Australia has strongly encouraged people who can work from home to do so, Prof Murphy said, with about 70 percent of public servants working from home and most businesses following suit. 

But he said the "feeling was we would like to keep some of those core activities going and clearly, if things had got worse or do get worse, we would go harder, but we felt we should bring in measures that we could largely maintain for some months".  

Prof Murphy's New Zealand counterpart, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, told the committee he felt there have been more similarities in Australia and New Zealand's responses to the virus than differences. 

He highlighted Prof Murphy's comment that Australia debated the measures and was prepared to go harder if they needed to and that a similar discussion happened in New Zealand, ultimately resulting in a harder response. 

The Prime Minister will announce later this week what businesses will be able to open when the current alert level 4 is reduced to alert level 3. On April 20, Cabinet will decide if the lockdown is to be extended. 

Treasury scenarios released by the Government show unemployment could reach up to 26 percent if the coronavirus lockdown is extended beyond four weeks. 

New Zealand's approach has been praised by commentators worldwide, with the number of new cases of coronavirus decreasing almost every day for the last week.