Siouxsie Wiles claps back at David Seymour's claim coronavirus risk 'not as big as it was sold'

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles has clapped back at a politician for claiming the risk posed by coronavirus "is not as great as it was sold to us" and that the Government has "been a bit slow to be nimble".

ACT leader David Seymour appeared on Facebook video blog The Daily Jase and questioned the modelling provided to the Government by health experts that said if eradication fails, up to 14,400 Kiwis could die from COVID-19.

"That really I think is not quite right. I think the risk posed by the virus is not as great as it was sold to us," said Seymour, MP for Epsom.

"The Prime Minister said tens of thousands of people would die if we do nothing. I don't think there was any plausible scenario given what we know now about the virus in general - especially in New Zealand - where that would happen."

Seymour said the rate of new cases in New Zealand started flattening off within days of the lockdown being put in palce and before the lockdown's effect had shown up in New Zealand's statistics.

He said the economic impact of the lockdown has been worse than the virus itself, which has so far claimed the lives of 17 New Zealanders and infected more than 1400.

"If we know that the virus was not as bad as we thought, and the lockdown is worse than we thought, then the right thing to do is to actually change the balance between the lockdown measures and the virus," he said.

"I think the Government has been frankly a bit slow to be nimble."

Wiles, an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, said Seymour "isn't the only person who has fallen into the trap of thinking that the virus isn't that big a deal".

She told Newshub it makes her wonder where that information is coming from, as COVID-19 cases surpass 2.7 million across the globe while coronavirus-related deaths reach more than 190,000.

"Around the world we are seeing health systems overwhelmed and people dying. Not just the elderly and the vulnerable, but the young and healthy, and many healthcare workers. In fact, in many countries the number of dead is being massively undercounted."

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles.
Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles. Photo credit: Auckland University

'Underestimated' economic impact

Seymour said he "underestimated" how bad the economic impact of the virus would be.

New figures from the Ministry of Social Development show close to 30,000 more people have ended up on the Jobseeker benefit in the four weeks since the lockdown started, while more than $10 billion has been spent subsidising Kiwis' wages.

"There's massive pain out there in the business world where people can't pay their leases, landlords can't pay their banks, banks are starting to pull up the anchors on credit, and all of a sudden you get a crunch," Seymour said.

"But then that moves over into the social world where people are having real mental health problems and real stress and relationship breakdowns and domestic violence, related in part to being locked up but also related to the economic stress they're facing."

Seymour said he supports the Government's general approach but thinks they could have been a "bit more nimble in adjusting their course once new information became clear".

New Zealand's response to the pandemic has been widely praised as the number of new cases has dropped off, and Dr Wiles said what seems to happen when a catastrophe is successfully averted is that "people start to think you made it all up".

"I'd point to what is happening overseas and remind Mr Seymour that we had less capacity in the healthcare system and potentially many more vulnerable people than countries like Italy," she said.

"He may not think there was 'any plausible scenario' for thousands to die but that just suggests to me he hasn't actually looked at the available evidence, including the modelling of the different scenarios which is freely available for him to consult."

ACT Party leader and MP for Epsom David Seymour.
ACT Party leader and MP for Epsom David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty

Seymour said the Government has "done a terrible job of being prepared for and managing" the COVID-19 crisis, and that "outside of a few countries like Taiwan, all governments seem really hopeless at managing the pandemic".

He said because of that failure, people across the globe have "just had to stay home".

Dr Ayesha Verall, the infectious disease expert who independently audited the Government's contact tracing, found that it needs to improve before the country can safely come out of lockdown.

Cabinet subsequently approved $55 million to improve the Ministry of Health's contact tracing capabilities, as it is currently able to trace up to 185 cases per day, while the auditor recommends up to 1000.

"Fundamentally it's a government failure," Seymour said. "We're staying in lockdown for an extra five days which is costing a billion dollars a day because the Government can't do contact tracing." 

Health Minister David Clark said the public response to the threat of COVID-19 "has been remarkable" and that by staying home "we have saved lives". 

But he said Kiwis "cannot take anything for granted".