APEC: German Chancellor Angela Merkel describes New Zealand's zero-COVID strategy as 'very strict'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described New Zealand's zero-COVID strategy as "very strict" during a Q&A with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for APEC. 

Merkel appeared alongside Ardern virtually on Friday for the Q&A hosted by Microsoft president Brad Smith, who asked the two "great leaders" what their biggest challenges were in responding to COVID-19. 

The soon-to-be-departing Chancellor, who hosted Ardern in Berlin in 2018 before the pandemic, began by highlighting how New Zealand pursued a strict elimination strategy - a policy only a handful of other countries took on. 

"I think we started from different vantage points in our respective countries," Merkel said, via an interpreter who translated from German. 

"New Zealand had a very strict zero-COVID strategy that it pursued whereas we developed a yardstick right from the outset which was that we did not want to overstretch and overburden our health system.

"At the first stage we were quite successful in managing this, but we quickly realised that the biggest challenge really was that you have to take action proactively and pursue preventive measures, so once you see cases rising dramatically, you have to intervene immediately."

Merkel implied it can be difficult to prepare for an outbreak. 

"You have to act at a time when it is not yet visible in what way the case numbers are going to develop. To know that also explains why we've neglected climate change, because there we are seeing exponential growth too," she said. 

"Unfortunately, Germany is in the midst of a fourth wave now. We are registering a high increase in numbers. People may believe that it is a thing of the past but we have to realise it's not over. 

"We have to make sure our health system is not over-stretched, we have to develop a sense for exponential growth and what it means, and act preventatively - these were for me the most challenging - and they continue to be the most challenging - in the face of this pandemic."

Germany has recorded as many cases of COVID-19 as there are people in New Zealand - about 4.9 million. It's also recorded more than 90,000 deaths out of a population of 83 million. New Zealand has recorded just 33 deaths. 

A fairer comparison is the number of deaths per million. New Zealand has recorded 6.71 deaths per million, while Germany has registered 1169 deaths per million. 

New Zealand obviously had the advantage of being far more isolated compared to Germany, which shares a border with 11 European countries. 

In terms of vaccination, Germany and New Zealand sit neck-and-neck, with 66 percent of the total population fully vaccinated compared to 65 percent, respectively (this is not to be confused with the eligible population - 80 percent of New Zealand's eligible are double-jabbed). 

Germany has been vaccinating for longer than New Zealand. One-third of its population had had at least one dose by May. But as with most countries, the rollout pace soon slowed. Germany is now seeing record case numbers, with 39,676 registered in one day this week. 

New Zealand is also recording record case numbers, with 201 reported on Friday. The numbers are expected to climb as the Government slowly eases heavy restrictions in Auckland where cases are concentrated, and relies on vaccination instead of lockdowns. 

"I think one of the greatest challenges has simply been the fact that all of us for the most part would have had, broadly speaking, plans to deal with a pandemic, should it reach our shores - but needing to adapt to the specific issues around COVID-19," Ardern said during the Q&A. 

"Everything from the pace of transmission, the need to learn quickly, the role that quarantine can play and how to most suitably implement it, the border if you choose to use it, the most effective methods of containment, right down to quickly adapting to research and whether or not it can be transmitted via aerosol or surface. 

"Literally, you're building the plane whilst trying to fly, and we often refer to there not being any particular playbook, which turned out to be very true for all of us.

"Alongside one of those challenges though, came the need for us as quickly as we learned, to share that information with others. One strategy we adopted particularly to ensure we were utilising the best skills and expertise of every sector such as the private sector, was to be very open with the things we were grappling with so that they could help co-design some of the answers.

"So in a nutshell, learning and adapting quickly," Ardern said.