Professor Michael Baker hails COVID-19 elimination strategy as UK looks to mimic New Zealand's quarantine system almost a year on

Epidemiologist Michael Baker has talked up the Government's elimination strategy, as Britain looks to mimic New Zealand's managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system almost a year on. 

Professor Baker, an infectious diseases expert at Otago University's Department of Public Health, has become a household name in New Zealand after providing frequent commentary on the Government's COVID-19 response. 

He told the UK's Channel 4 News about the success of New Zealand's elimination strategy and the tools used to wipe out community cases, in the wake of Britain considering similar measures to help bring down spiralling case numbers. 

Prof Baker said nations that have adopted an elimination strategy - such as China and Vietnam - have suffered less economically than countries with suppression goals. 

"It's working in countries like Vietnam with 100 million people, it's working in mainland China with 1.4 billion people, so it doesn't depend on being an island - it can work in almost any setting. It just requires a commitment from the government - strong leadership - to try and achieve zero cases," Prof Baker told C4News. 

"It's important to remember that you don't always get to zero and you will have setbacks. New Zealand's had outbreaks, but actually, the countries pursuing this approach are doing very well from a population perspective, and also protecting their economies and they're all recovering much faster than countries that are trying to live with the virus.

"I think the UK has all of the resources necessary to pursue a zero-COVID approach."

Professor Michael Baker.
Professor Michael Baker. Photo credit: Channel 4 News / screenshot

While some in the UK were floating the idea of mass infection leading to herd immunity, the Government in New Zealand initiated a strict lockdown in March last year to stamp out the virus, along with border restrictions and a new MIQ system. 

The Government initially paid for MIQ. But in August a fees scheme was introduced to temper criticism that taxpayers were footing the bill for the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who were choosing to return home during the pandemic. 

Britain quickly backed away from the herd immunity idea, but it has taken the country almost a year to consider a similar MIQ system based on New Zealand's. Australia introduced state-backed MIQ not long after New Zealand. 

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday the UK has "considered all of the possibilities", when asked about reports in the Sunday Times that ministers had ordered plans to be drawn up for the creation of MIQ hotels based on the New Zealand system. 

"In terms of enforcement, we are going to be strengthening the checks at the border - so when people come in, to make sure that they have filled out the passenger location form, that they have got that negative test that they have to vouch for before they get on the flight," Raab told Sky. 

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Photo credit: Getty

As the UK considers MIQ facilities, new rules have come into force requiring all arrivals to self-isolate for 10 days, or receive a negative test result from a coronavirus test taken at least five days after they enter the UK.

The UK has been grappling with the emergence of the new more transmissible coronavirus variant, B.1.1.7., which has been detected at New Zealand's border. It led the UK to ban flights from South Africa where it emerged. 

There are now fears that another new variant, detected in Manaus and in travellers arriving in Japan - and thought to be more infectious - could soon arrive in the UK. It's prompted a ban on flights from South America, Portugal and Cape Verde. 

Raab has pushed back on the idea that the UK acted too slow in implementing border controls, despite the country recording almost 90,000 COVID-19-related deaths since the pandemic began. 

"I don't accept that we have been too slow in this - we are broadly the same pace in terms of Canada and Germany," Raab told British journalist Andrew Marr. 

The UK in December became the first Western country to license a vaccine against COVID-19, opening the way for mass immunisation with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. 

The vaccine was authorised for emergency use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). Britain aims to deliver the first dose to 17 million people by spring. 

"We've vaccinated now over 3 million. If you take the UK compared to other countries around Europe, we've got double the vaccination rate of the next leading country, Denmark," Raab told the Sunday Telegraph. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Monday that New Zealand will receive its first shipment of vaccines in the first quarter of 2021, before the end of March. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

"We start to see the big number of vaccines start to arrive in the second quarter," he said. "We're expecting three different types of vaccines to be arriving in the second quarter so that's before the middle of the year. That's when we'll start to see the bigger public roll-out and making the vaccine available to everybody."

Hipkins said it will likely be a year before the entire population is vaccinated due to the logistics of getting it to thousands of people a day. He said vaccines will be available at pharmacies and GPs, and at pop-up clinics. It will not be mandatory. 

With more infectious variants of COVID-19 at play, concerns have been raised in New Zealand about border control and whether there are enough restrictions in place to keep them out and prevent another lockdown. 

Hipkins said the Government is doing everything to avoid that scenario. 

"We're doing everything we can do keep COVID-19 out of our community. Our border settings are very effective. Sometime this week we will clock over 100,000 New Zealanders having returned through our managed isolation facilities and we've had fewer than 600 positive cases in there, and not one person has gone through and taken COVID-19 into the community with them."

The Government now requires all arrivals to New Zealand - except for those from Australia, Antarctica and some Pacific Island nations - be tested on day one of their arrival.

Arrivals from the US and UK must provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before they can board a flight to New Zealand.