Coronavirus: International media paints grim picture of New Zealand COVID outbreak

New Zealand's reputation in international media for having one of the world's leading COVID-19 responses has been put in doubt by a quick increase in cases months after it began a strict alert level 4 lockdown.

Having already plummeted from the top spot to number 38 in Bloomberg's COVID Resilience Rankings - attributed to the Delta outbreak and relatively slow vaccination rollout - international media have also taken to spotlighting the country's large rise in infections.

In Australia, where New Zealand's response is being watched closely, outlets have been reporting the daily numbers.

"Spread of COVID-19 continues in New Zealand as it records DOZENS of new cases," screamed 7News' Friday headline (capitalisation by 7News), after 65 new cases were recorded.

After the 71 cases on Thursday - "sobering but not unexpected" as the Director of Public Health put it - SkyNews reported that New Zealand had recorded its "highest number of daily COVID cases in six weeks". 

That report noted the Government's recently unveiled three-step roadmap for Auckland had drawn "plenty of criticism online", including tweets describing it as "a confusing jumble of things".

Across on fellow NewsCorp website, journalist Ben Graham wrote that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's "crown may be about to slip". He noted New Zealand had long recorded minuscule numbers of cases compared to many other countries but there had been a "seismic shift" in the direction the country was going in recent weeks.

Graham described the move away from the elimination strategy as a "huge gamble" for the Kiwi Prime Minister. 

"Although Kiwis knew they couldn't live cut off from the world forever, the pace of the shift has alarmed many of them and stoked fears about what will happen in the coming weeks and months."

Massey University's Professor of Politics Richard Shaw is quoted as saying New Zealand was now in a "weird" position where it could get the "horrible stuff" near the end of the pandemic, rather than at the start.

"It's possible that New Zealanders will get off their arses and get vaccinated, and the outcome won't be too bad, but there are some terrible [vaccination] rates in some sections of the community so we will be really vulnerable," he said. "We are entering a really risky period."

Some are asking if Jacinda Ardern's crown might be about to fall.
Some are asking if Jacinda Ardern's crown might be about to fall. Photo credit: Getty Images.

As of Friday, 62 percent of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, with 83 percent having had their first dose. However, in some demographics, those figures are much lower. For example, just 63.3 percent of Māori have been jabbed once.

Prof Shaw is reported as saying that even if Delta leads to a large number of hospitalisations and deaths, it doesn't mean "the end of the golden weather for the Prime Minister and her party". 

"She already has an incredibly high level of popularity so she can afford to lose some. She's got stuff to draw on, so many people will cut her a certain amount of slack."

That seems to line up with recent polling done by Curia Research for the Taxpayers' Union, released on Thursday. Conducted between October 3 and October 11 - so including the period where the roadmap was released and cases began increasing - the poll puts Labour on 44.8 percent, down only 1 point. National and ACT have each risen slightly over the last month, but Labour and the Greens could still govern.

Meanwhile, SBS News reports that "Experts fret as NZ posts 71 COVID-19 cases", including comments from the likes of University of Otago epidemiologist Dr Amanada Kvalsvig, who on Wednesday called for an alert level 4 circuit breaker lockdown for Auckland.

"These trends show that it's time to talk about a circuit-breaker," she said. "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."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said at the time that the Government wasn't considering such a move, noting potential issues with compliance. He also rejected the Government had moved away from a science-led response, with Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield backing him up by saying experts the Ministry of Health had spoken to didn't support increasing restrictions.

The typically sensationalist Daily Mail has featured several pieces about New Zealand's response. An article from the Australian Associated Press shared by the Mail was given the headline: "New Zealand is set to re-open its international border for Christmas as Jacinda Ardern admits she CAN'T stop Delta and considers major relaxation of quarantine rules".

That headline seems to come from the fact the Government is currently assessing whether all arrivals need to go into MIQ or some could self-isolate at home in the future. 

Chris Hipkins this week said the Government wasn't considering moving to alert level 4 in Auckland.
Chris Hipkins this week said the Government wasn't considering moving to alert level 4 in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty Images.

In the UK, where media has consistently mocked New Zealand's attempts to eliminate Delta, The Times featured a piece with the headline "Jacinda Ardern under fire over end of COVID elimination plan". 

Citing the increasing case numbers and comments from epidemiologist Michael Baker that "all New Zealanders should plan to encounter this virus in the next couple of months", the Independent ran the headline: "COVID could tear through entire New Zealand between now and Christmas, expert warns". asked "Is New Zealand headed for coronavirus disaster". It acknowledged that Aotearoa's response had saved "tens of thousands of lives" and meant Kiwis haven't had to deal with restrictions for most of the last year.

But it also reported "things have now taken a turn for the worse", noting that despite being in its second month of lockdown, Auckland is still seeing rising cases.

The overseas media gives the impression the outbreak is out of control, but that's something the Deputy Prime Minister rejected on Thursday while reminding Kiwis New Zealand was still doing extremely well compared to the rest of the world.

"Absolutely not. Where we are today is we are at one of the trickiest bits of COVID-19, but we still have in place some of the strictest alert level restrictions in the world. 

"We are still able to stand up here each day and tell you how many cases there are, that those cases are being followed up. We have one of the lowest hospitalisation rates in the world, we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

"We are at a very difficult point in COVID as we transition to a framework where vaccination provides us all with that personal armour and we can move forward from there. During this period we need people in Auckland to obey the alert level three restrictions and that is what will make sure we keep the outbreak under control."

In the face of criticism about the roadmap last week, Ardern said the Government had set out the "what's next"

Ardern said it was her job to "field the views of everyone". 

"There are competing, and always have been, desires from everyone, from those who are in the middle of restrictions, those who live outside of them, but actually the job that we have is the same and it is to keep people safe," she said.

"Yes, we have made some small changes but they are deemed by our public health experts, the ones we have relied on all along, to be the lowest-risk options to continue to support and sustain Aucklanders as they continue with what are some of the toughest restrictions in the world."

On Friday, Ardern said the outbreak had grown at a pace "beyond what we have expected" and promised to unveil a new alert level system next week.