Coronavirus: Judith Collins won't say how many COVID-19 deaths would be 'acceptable' number to live with

Judith Collins says Kiwis are starting to agree with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison - that elimination of COVID-19 isn't possible and we'll have to learn to live with the virus. 

But she's refusing to say how many deaths she'd accept in exchange for an end to lockdowns.

Morrison earlier this week said it was "absurd" for any Australian state to think they could "protect themselves from COVID with the Delta strain forever", and New Zealand was the same.

"COVID is a new, different world. We need to get out there and live in it. We can't stay in the cave, and we can get out of it safely."

"New Zealanders are starting to feel that's what's going to happen," Collins told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"But look, I just think I'm more positive. I like to think that we can get the vaccination rates up so high that what we see is what Prime Minister Ardern promised us earlier this year in January when she said that we'd get everyone, as many as we could vaccinated, and then this would be treated like a booster shot that we have each year like the winter flu. 

"That's what I'm still hoping for - that she will deliver on the promise she made it all."

Delta is about twice as infectious as the original strain of COVID-19 that was discovered in China in 2019. New South Wales has struggled to keep it under control, progressively tightening its lockdown over the past two months but still recording nearly 1000 new cases a day. New Zealand went straight into a strict lockdown a week ago with the discovery of a single case - as of Tuesday at 1pm, 148 had been found.

Morrison's plan for Australia is similar to what Collins wants - a target of about 75 percent vaccinated would enable us to "avoid future lockdowns", according to the latter. 

"New Zealanders were very compliant with this last year, and hopefully will continue to comply with lockdowns this year, it's really important that we do that because we have a largely unvaccinated population," said Collins. 

"I think there's about another 4 million people that need to be vaccinated. This is an enormous ask when this could have been rolled out a lot earlier… now we've got Delta."

The Australian government's outbreak modelling is supplied by the Doherty Institute, a joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital. Its latest report says if the country opened up at 70 percent of the adult population vaccinated, with current levels of contact tracing and continued isolation and quarantine measures, nearly 1500 people would die of COVID-19 within six months - about five times as many as die from the flu in the same time period.

"This level of vaccination will make it easier to live with the virus, as we do with other viruses such as the flu," the Doherty Institute said on Tuesday. "However, it won’t be possible to maintain a situation where there are no cases at all. The focus will shift to keeping the number of people going to hospital and dying at a minimum."

Judith Collins.
Judith Collins. Photo credit: The AM Show

New Zealand has a higher rate of deaths from the flu than Australia - we record nearly as many deaths on average per year as they do, despite a much smaller population. New research published Tuesday found even with 90 percent of the total population of New Zealand vaccinated - including children - we'd have about 500 COVID-19 deaths a year - around the same as the flu - if the borders were opened, not to mention some survivors suffering long COVID. 

Herd immunity against Delta with the current vaccines would require 98 percent coverage, an "almost impossible" target to reach. 

If kids under 12 aren't vaccinated, at 80 percent total population vaccine coverage the death toll would likely triple and "non-pharmaceutical interventions will still be required to sustain the pandemic response". 

Collins said if 70 percent of just the eligible population got vaccinated, we "shouldn't need to lock down at level 4".

"Hopefully we'll get even further than 75 percent. My view is it's way too premature to talk about people dying and acceptable numbers of deaths, which I find very offensive, that term. But we do need to understand we cannot survive on a level 4 lockdown month after month after month."

She criticised the Government for not ordering vaccines earlier, and we should now be ordering booster shots. COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has said New Zealand has enough vaccine doses already ordered to cover booster shots for those who got vaccinated early in the vaccine rollout, and is "of course" looking at getting more if the science justifies it