Coronavirus: Judith Collins says National would keep lockdown in place until ICU capacity boosted, rapid tests available

Judith Collins says if National was in power, the upper North Island would be out of lockdown as soon as rapid tests were available and there were enough ICU beds to handle an outbreak.

While that sounds like it might take a while, she insists that unlike the Government, the National Party has a plan

"They've sat on their fingers for the past 18 months, sitting around saying, 'Gosh, aren't we clever? We lock people down,'" Collins told The AM Show on Wednesday. "That's the only thing they have a plan for, which is to lock people down. 

"It is really important we get as many people vaccinated as possible, but as part of that we also need to have all the other protections in place."

While the Government has invested in getting new gear to treat COVID-19 patients who end up in hospital, doubling its ventilator capacity, the number of staffed ICU beds per capita remains near the bottom of the OECD

Health Minister Andrew Little earlier this week told RNZ there was "some spare capacity" which he was confident would be enough to handle an outbreak, but more nurses were in training.

"Even if they're not fully qualified ICU nurse, they can work in an ICU environment."

Each ICU bed takes an average five-and-a-half nurses to keep running 24/7, Wellington ICU co-director Dr Alex Psirides said in September. It takes years to fully train an ICU specialist - three to four years for a nurse, and seven to eight years for a doctor.

National doesn't expect the lockdown to go for that long, of course, urging the Government to fast-track immigration applications for 3000 healthcare workers. 

"From a voter perspective, let's make it really clear for people - if National was in power right now, when would they be out of this lockdown?" asked AM Show host Ryan Bridge.

"Once we get in place the ICU beds and we get in place rapid antigen testing and we get those things," said Collins. "We actually have a plan to get those in place - the Government hasn't."

A rapid antigen testing trial is underway, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said last week, noting it's not a replacement for traditional PCR testing because it misses more positive cases.

The Government has refused to set targets for ending lockdowns or even moving through the three new steps towards level 2 for Auckland, saying it would be counter-productive

"The reason we've not given a specific number is because even if you say 'we want 80 percent', if you have only 60 percent in one part of the country, people will die in that part of the country," Ardern said in September

Judith Collins.
Judith Collins. Photo credit: The AM Show

While vaccination rates have improved a lot since then, they're still far below what epidemiologists say is required. So far 82.3 percent of eligible Kiwis - those aged 12 and above - have had one dose, and 57.9 percent have had two. 

But that overall figure obscures major inequities in the rollout - Māori are 55 percent less likely to have had two doses than Pākehā, for example, and 50 percent less likely than the overall population. 

While more efforts have been made in recent weeks to reach Māori, if that ratio doesn't improve an overall vaccination rate of 95 percent could still leave more than a third of Māori without protection against the virus - not to mention every child in the country under 12. 

National has set a target of 70-75 percent of 12-plus being fully vaccinated to "pursue elimination without nationwide lockdowns", or only use them as a "last resort". 

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi in September issued a one-off residency visa for thousands of migrants stuck in limbo, including doctors and nurses. But others have reportedly had trouble getting into the country through the MIQ lottery, despite the New Zealand College of Critical Care Nurses saying there are dozens of vacancies for trained ICU staff.