Coronavirus: Bridges urges shift to level 2, saying more COVID-19 cases possible at any alert level

National Party leader Simon Bridges admits moving to pandemic alert level 2 could result in more COVID-19 cases, but says this could happen under any level and the lockdown has to end for the sake of the economy.

New Zealand has spent six weeks at levels 4 and 3, under which businesses are restricted in how they can operate - if at all - and people are encouraged to stay home unless they really have to go out. 

While the unprecedented restrictions have been successful in dramatically reducing the number of new infections of the virus - which has killed hundreds of thousands of people overseas - they've also taken a toll on the economy.

Bridges says there are 1000 jobs being lost every day under level 3, based on new applications for the Jobseeker benefit. This is similar to the rate of new applications under level 4, when far fewer businesses were able to operate - there were 30,000 applications in the month to April 17, despite the Government's wage subsidy being paid out to organisations employing 1.6 million people.

"This has gone on too long," he told Newshub. "We need to get New Zealand working again. Quite simply we've got to end lockdown because it's so much easier to keep someone in a job."

He said officials "from Ashley Bloomfield down" have said COVID-19 is "eliminated".

"Having flattened the curve, let's not flatten the economy as well. We have to come out at some point. We can't just wait until there's a vaccine."  

His comments come after police revealed nearly 700 reported mass gatherings of more than 10 people in just 24 hours over the first weekend under level 3. COVID-19 is caused by the highly infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is transmitted via respiratory droplets and is possibly airborne. 

University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told Newshub the effects of such breaches might take weeks to show up in the data - the virus can incubate for days, and spread from person-to-person even if they're asymptomatic. If we drop to level 2 but have to return to level 3 or 4, he says it would cause huge disruption to business.

"You can start these new trains of transmission, but it might take three or four weeks before you're aware of them. This is the exponential function that is a real problem with this virus. 

"All around the world people underestimated this virus, and it's been a disaster. Some countries that appear to have succeeded, as New Zealand is doing, have gone backwards very rapidly. This is still a very infectious virus - there's no free pass with this infection."

Simon Bridges.
Simon Bridges. Photo credit: The AM Show

The World Health Organization on Friday urged countries considering lifting lockdowns to do so "gradually".

"It's really important that as countries ease those measures that they are constantly on the lookout for a jump in infections and in particular are dealing with transmission in special settings," emergencies expert Dr Mike Ryan said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show on Monday there was no chance New Zealand would come out of level 3 early.

"We're waiting to be assured that when we move we're doing it confidently. We have still got cases from last week that are under investigation. And I take every single one of them seriously - they can be an indicator or wider issues within a community.

"I think the majority of New Zealanders do want us to be cautious because we want to do it once and do it right. The worst thing we could do is move prematurely and then yo-yo between levels with people in and out of work for a prolonged period of time. That would be disastrous."

Asked if he feared an outbreak of new infections should restrictions lift, Bridges said it would happen regardless of what alert level we were at, with breaches of the rules showing "a level of frustration". 

"I think we may well see further cases - this is true everywhere in the world... We may see things grow again. But that will be true whether we're in level 4, 3, 2 or 1 in the next week or so... at some point we have to come out."

Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett agreed, saying he doesn't think people need to stay home. 

"If we don't work, we're going to end up with masses of people unemployed."

Dr Baker said waiting to eradicate the virus completely remains the best course of action, as that would also remove the likelihood of returning to level 3 or 4 in the future.

"Increasingly we're looking at the data coming in from overseas, and this is a far more serious illness for even younger people than we had thought previously. I'm just so relieved to be living in a country that has potential to be virus-free. The more data we get, the stronger the arguments are that this is the place to be." 

New Zealand at this point is set to stay at alert level 3 until at least May 12.