Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern fends off COVID-19 elimination strategy scrutiny, from NZ to Australia

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is standing firm on her COVID-19 elimination strategy, despite politicians at home and across the Tasman casting doubt on the ability to contain Delta. 

It's been two weeks since COVID-19 was detected in the community after almost six months of no coronavirus. Ardern is determined to return New Zealand to virus-free status, even if it means keeping the South Island - where no cases have been detected - locked down as a precaution. 

"The restrictions in place at the moment across New Zealand in some areas are there as a matter of caution given we are dealing with a Delta outbreak. We cannot be 100 percent certain that we know every single contact in this outbreak or how many of them may be in the South Island," Ardern said in Parliament on Thursday.

"It is better we get this right and not find a positive case in the south while we're at lower alert levels, which could have devastating consequences."

But ACT leader David Seymour says there must be a better way of protecting South Islanders from the risks of COVID-19, than locking them down along with Auckland, where there are hundreds of known cases in the community. 

"Why wouldn't the Government simply isolate those remaining people so the other million South Islanders can address other aspects of their wellbeing, such as the survival of their businesses, their children's education, and their healthcare, at lower alert levels?" he asked in Parliament. 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Parliament $1.37 billion has been paid out so far this outbreak, just for the wage subsidy scheme. That's on top of the $1.5 billion in lost economic output each week. 

Ardern justified keeping the South Island in lockdown. She said of the 515 known contacts in the south, 15 are overdue their day 12 tests and are being actively followed up by public health units, and seven are not yet due their day 12 test. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

"Yesterday amongst the numbers we reported, of those contacts we had, roughly 40 percent of them returned positive results on their day 12 test, so it demonstrates that they are important," Ardern said. 

"You need to contact trace around those individuals and ensure that if they have exposure events, there aren't knock on cases, so even though they are isolated, caution would still suggest keeping the alert levels where they are."

Seymour said the Government is too slow. 

"How long does the Prime Minister believe it is sustainable to maintain its current strategy if a single initial case can lead to lockdowns that take weeks and weeks and weeks before the Government has any confidence about lifting them?"

Ardern "corrected" the ACT leader. 

"That single initial case had hundreds of cases around it. It's simply not correct to assume that we had one case here and that everything that's been done was because of one case," she said. 

"We literally had hundreds and you can see with the outbreak now, we're working very hard to ensure that it doesn't have a negative effect on people in the South Island."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty Images

Seymour isn't the only politician questioning the cost of lockdowns, when Delta is changing the game. In New South Wales, Premier Gladys Berejiklian's attempt to contact trace out of a Delta outbreak failed, with thousands of cases now registered daily. 

Neighbouring state Victoria, which has endured six lockdowns, is now planning to ease restrictions, despite registering more than 170 new cases of COVID-19. 

"We have thrown everything at this, but it is now clear to us that we are not going to drive these numbers down, they are instead going to increase," Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called enduring support of elimination "absurd", while Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has also expressed doubt. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I welcome the acknowledgement in Victoria today that eliminating the Delta variant is an impossibility. It can't be done," Frydenberg said. "No other country has done it, and based on the best medical advice we have we can't do it."

Even one of Ardern's top advisors, Otago University Professor David Skegg, an epidemiologist, has admitted the elimination strategy "may fail".

But Ardern says restrictions need to continue while the vaccination rollout ramps up. So far, 3.59 million doses of Pfizer have been administered in New Zealand, of which 1.23 million are second doses. 

"I see different leaders in Australia taking different positions, but I actually think you'd see generally that their view would be, keeping those cases down while you vaccinate has to be the goal, and that's certainly ours," Ardern told reporters. 

"Delta is different - no one is denying that. But I think what you'll also certainly see from everyone is a view that actually, the focus has to be before you change up your plans, is vaccinating people, and that's what we've always said. 

"Elimination is the best strategy for us while we're vaccinating people, and then we'll continue to look at all the evidence going forward. We've said that for some time. But for now, it is the best strategy for now."