Coronavirus: Andrew Little says he'd 'be surprised if we ever see a level 4 lockdown again' if vaccination coverage reaches 90 percent

Andrew Little says once the current outbreak of COVID-19 is quashed, he doubts New Zealand will ever have to lockdown again. 

Auckland is currently at level 4, and will be until at least the middle of next week, when it's hoped the city can drop down to level 3 and get stuck into some greatly-missed takeaways

"So far, the numbers in the last few days are looking right, but we'll just have to see what the numbers for the next couple of days look like," the Health Minister told Newshub Nation on Saturday morning. 

The daily case numbers have been trending downwards, appearing on track to hit single digits in the coming week if all goes well. If Auckland does move to level 3, it shouldn't be too long before they join the rest of the country at level 2.

"We've always seen level 3 as a reasonably short transition from level 4 to level 2, again it will all depend on what the numbers are looking like," said Little. "The Delta variant has changed the way things look compared to last year's version of COVID. We'll just take the numbers day by day as they are, and make those judgements accordingly."

The Government has been under pressure to say at what level of vaccination coverage it would be happy to drop restrictions and open the borders. Many countries with high coverage -  75 percent-plus - have started opening up, or are about to, including some with similar wealth and population to New Zealand - such as Denmark, Ireland and Norway. 

Modelling has suggested even with a 90 percent vaccination rate, New Zealand could expect up to 1000 deaths a year from COVID - double that of influenza, even with most of us protected by vaccines. 

Kiwi politicians have been reluctant to say how many deaths they'd be fine with as a tradeoff for reopening.

"I can't put a number on it… no minister's going to say 'this number of deaths' is ever acceptable," said Little. "What we do need to do is make sure we have a response that manages outbreaks as best as possible and minimises the risk of harm, including fatality, to people as a consequence of any future outbreak."

Andrew Little.
Andrew Little. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

The Government and some experts have said a vaccination target would be counterproductive - once it's reached, some hesitant people might use that as an excuse not to get the jab, and not all communities will be covered equally, leaving some more susceptible to outbreaks than others. The vaccination campaign has also struggled to attract buy-in from Māori, with their vaccination rates barely half that of Pākehā. 

Little said that ratio is expected to improve as the rollout reaches into remote communities, for example with the new 'Shot, Bro' mobile vaccination clinics

"One of the reasons for the health reforms is exactly because the health outcomes for Māori and Pasifika have been so uneven. We want the Māori Health Authority to provide the kind of leadership I know is there to provide health outcomes for Māori."

Whatever vaccination rate we end up achieving by the end of the year, Little says it's unlikely lockdowns - as effective as they have been to date - will be the go-to to fight future outbreaks. Especially not nationwide.

"There may well be some [regional] limitations for large and extensive, out-of-control outbreaks. Again, we just don't know. But the idea of a level 4 lockdown, I think once we get through this, I'd be surprised if we ever see a level 4 lockdown again. Level 3 becomes problematic too.

"But depending on the nature of outbreaks of the future, restrictions might have to be put in place. I think what's most important is we get our response correct from the health system so that we can minimise disruption to people."

That doesn't mean we'll all be living like it was 2019 again, however. 

"Things like mask-wearing, scanning, people should expect to continue… I think you'll see the health workforce will have to use PPE when dealing with emergency departments and on the wards and what have you. So that will be around for a while until we get to understand, long-term, the way COVID behaves." 

He also said the Government was considering whether to implement vaccine and mask mandates wider than it already has - including possibly requiring unvaccinated public servants to work from home. 

"These are all questions we are going to have to seriously consider. In the end, from the Government's point of view from a health perspective, we just need to maximise that number of the population that is vaccinated. The number 90 percent is now used - I'd like to think we can get beyond that… one of the best things we could do is lead the world in terms of vaccination rate." 

Elsewhere in the interview, Little discussed plans for potential dedicated MIQ facilities, the upcoming self-isolation trial, Australia's home-based care for mild COVID-19 cases and the effort to boost New Zealand's ICU capacity. 

Watch the video. 

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