National MP Chris Bishop fears Kiwis could be in for a "massive psychological change" after a top epidemiologist admitted the current COVID-19 elimination strategy "may fail".
Otago University Professor David Skegg made the comments during a virtual meeting of the Health Select Committee on Thursday while Parliament is currently suspended due to the Delta outbreak.
"Elimination does not necessarily mean zero COVID. It means zero-tolerance for cases of COVID. We will stamp it out and continue to try to stamp it out," Prof Skegg told the committee.
"We may fail, we're taking an ambitious strategy, but we lose nothing by doing that. In fact, it keeps our options open. But we may find that it's not possible. We may find that we have to move to a suppression strategy.
"But we won't think in advance, 'let's give up and let's stop trying to live the way we are'. It'll just happen if it does happen."
Prof Skegg said it "will not be good" if New Zealand gives up on elimination, the way Australia appears to be, with daily cases in New South Wales now in the thousands.
"We will all have to live a more restricted life. People will have to shield from each other, particularly older people in winter. We'll probably all have to wear masks, and a lot of people will get sick and die, and not just from COVID but other diseases which won't get treated in a timely way because our health system will be so overwhelmed," Prof Skegg said.
"So what we're saying is, let's do our best, unfortunately, the Delta variant makes things more difficult, but if we can achieve a really high vaccination coverage, we still believe we've got a good chance of pulling it off."
Dr Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland, said the concept of herd immunity is often misunderstood.
"What you can get is degrees of herd immunity and this is a realistic option going forward, that we do get the virus into our community, we track and trace and stamp it out as much as we can, but you still have a degree of community spread," she said.
"We don't know what that looks like in New Zealand but that is a realistic option going forward, that it will continue to spread in our community, and our public health services will adapt to the degree they could."
The experts' remarks appeared to surprise Bishop, National's COVID-19 response spokesperson, who said it will be a shock for New Zealanders to learn they may have to accept coronavirus in the community.
"That is going to be a massive psychological change for the New Zealand population. New Zealanders have become very persuaded by the idea that one case in the community is Disasterville."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has admitted that the Government does not intend to continue using lockdowns to control COVID-19, because she hopes that vaccines will "form a barricade" to protect the vulnerable.
From next year, she said travellers deemed "low-risk" will be able to enter the country without going into quarantine, if they are fully vaccinated. The Government is also running a self-isolation trial for vaccinated Kiwis later this year, though Prof Skegg and other experts have warned it could be "quite challenging" to control.
"When we open the border, things are going to get tough," Prof Skegg told the committee.
"I keep saying to my friends, this is the golden year. We've had a wonderful time the last six months. We're almost the only country on Earth just living a normal life.
"I know some people have been really impacted by the border closures, obviously families that can't be reunited, people who work in tourism - I know some of these people and they're suffering.
"But most New Zealanders have been able to enjoy normal, social life, our economy is doing well, we've spent less time in lockdown than many other countries.
"But I think things will get more difficult when we start reopening the borders... we're going to have outbreaks of COVID-19 and they may be difficult to control."