Coronavirus: Government not considering alert level 4 'circuit-breaker lockdown' despite calls from health experts

The Government isn't considering an alert level 4 lockdown for Auckland, despite a number of health experts saying the region needs just that. 

Several epidemiologists and modellers are calling for the Government to impose a so-called "circuit-breaker" lockdown due to the increasing number of cases being seen in Auckland. The  reproduction value (R value - or the average number of people a case will pass the virus on to) of the current outbreak stands at about 1.2 and experts warn daily cases could soon hit triple figures.

"These trends show that it's time to talk about a circuit-breaker," University of Otago epidemiologist Dr Amanda Kvalsvig said on Wednesday. "A move back to alert level 4 is the best and probably only chance of reversing these highly-concerning trends that are all moving in the wrong direction."

"Vaccination is not going to happen fast enough to reverse these trends and we need to buy time."

Others, including Dr Dion O'Neale and Professor Shaun Hendy from Te Pūnaha Matatini, which has been doing a lot of the Government's modelling, have also said a "circuit-breaker" could be needed. 

"There's a strong case to be made for a temporary return to alert level 4 in Auckland as a circuit-breaker to limit transmission for a few weeks while we try to get as many people vaccinated as possible," Dr O'Neale said.

"We wouldn't expect this to get us to zero cases in a short time, but it would mean that we are able to get more vaccinations to under-protected groups both inside and outside Auckland. It would have the added benefit of allowing contact tracers to potentially ring-fence some more of the sub-clusters in the outbreak, due to the reduced numbers of contacts."

But COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Wednesday afternoon that a move back to alert level 4 isn't something the Government is considering. 

Upon saying that, there was a chorus of "why not?" from the reporters in attendance at the 1pm press conference. 

"The reality is, as I have already indicated, the alert level system that we have relies on a very high degree of voluntary compliance for New Zealanders," Hipkins replied. "What we have seen in those countries that have tried to sustain those kinds of restrictions for a prolonged period of time, they have found that the effectiveness of those restrictions actually diminishes."

That lines up with an explanation given by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday, when she implied there was concern about public compliance with harsher restrictions. She said in some Australian states where there was a long-stretch of the same restrictions, cases had ticked up. 

"One of the things in our thinking has been, over time, adhering to really strict restrictions is hard, and you can expect that human behaviour might change," Ardern said at the time. 

The Prime Minister said the new three-step alert level 3 roadmap settings were designed to give Aucklanders slightly more freedom, with not much more added risk. For example, picnics between two households are allowed outdoors where the virus is less likely to transmit. That previously wasn't allowed until alert level 2.

Hipkins on Wednesday also rejected that the Government was moving away from a science-led approach to the COVID-19 response. 

"It is a science-led response but it is also a science-led response in the context of an increasingly vaccinated population. We have to recognise that," Hipkins said.

"We have to recognise that other countries who have also pursued similar strategies to us around actively running down cases, which we continue to do, have changed their approach in light of the higher proportion of their population vaccinated as we are doing here in New Zealand."

He said no country had been able to get daily Delta cases down to zero. 

"Once Delta is out there it is much harder to contain or to eliminate or eradicate than previously strains of the virus have been."

The Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, speaking alongside Hipkins at 1pm, agreed the response was still science-led and that experts within the Ministry of Health and in Auckland didn't want a move back to alert level 4. 

"Decisions are being based on the public health risk assessment and the advice that we provide through. That is not just my personal advice. We canvas the views of a range of people, including our colleagues who are dealing with this outbreak in Auckland day in and day out. They are public health doctors, epidemiologists and so on."

"We canvassed the idea very deliberately of increasing alert levels again and that was not supported by our team or the team on the ground in Auckland based on the work and where we are in the outbreak."

Hipkins also pushed back on suggestions the move down to alert level 3 in September had led to the large increase in cases. He said, even if we had stayed at level 4, there was a good chance we'd still be in the same position as compliance may have begun to slowly drop.

The minister said the Government was working on a variety of measures for the way forward. Newshub understands it's working on a new traffic light system.

One of the concerns of Dr O'Neale's is that "it is very tough to vaccinate our way out of the growing case numbers". Surges in vaccinations, he said on Wednesday, also haven't been distributed evenly across demographics, with rates in rural communities and for Māori still low in many places.

"In addition to not offering complete protection against infection, vaccination takes a couple of weeks to develop a full immune response, even without accounting for the need to have a gap of three or more weeks between first and second doses.

"In contrast, after exposure, people infected with COVID are able to infect others within only a few days. During a growing outbreak, it is easy to have several generations' worth of infections before a surge in vaccinations is able to have an effect on transmission reduction."

Professor Michael Plank, also with Te Pūnaha Matatini, says increasing vaccination rates will slow transmission and turn the tide on case growth "over time". 

"However, in the meantime there is a danger that too many cases could mean our contact tracing system struggles to keep up with demand, leading to an acceleration in cases," he says.

"This means we need to do everything possible to minimise community transmission, particularly in the next few crucial weeks as we get more people double-dosed."

As of Wednesday, 59 percent of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated with 83 percent having had their first dose. In Auckland specifically, 87 percent have had one jab and 65 percent have had two. That's up from 85 percent and 54 percent a week before.

Ardern, who on Tuesday announced a vax-a-thon to encourage people to get vaccinated, said these rates needed to increase. 

"They aren't high enough yet to feel confident that we can ease restrictions dramatically without seeing a big surge in cases that could overwhelm our health services."