Minister explains why Govt dropped Covid-19 alert levels, amid some experts' surprise

Source: 1News

Associate Health Minister and physician Ayesha Verrall says mass community and wastewater testing, as well as New Zealand’s contact tracing systems, are behind the Government’s confident move down alert levels. 

Auckland today woke up to Alert Level 2 restrictions, while the rest of the country had dropped to Alert Level 1 — life as normal. The move left some experts, including microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles “a little surprised” given yesterday’s new community cases. 

Verall, who was an infectious diseases physician before she became an MP, told Breakfast today there isn’t likely to be unknown community transmission.

With more than 20,000 Covid-19 tests completed in Auckland since the weekend, when it was first revealed three people from a Papatoetoe family contracted the virus, Cabinet was confident that was the case, she said. 

Aside from the three community cases announced yesterday, who were all from the same family and were linked to Papatoetoe High School where one of the original cases attended, no further positive cases have been detected overnight. 

Verrall said whole genome sequencing has been completed, and it revealed “one mutation’s difference” between the student who contracted the virus and yesterday’s cases. 

“That confirms that they’re linked and that we’re not dealing with two different chains of transmission."

Results of wastewater testing in the Papatoetoe region, which also came through overnight, also showed no signs of the virus, Verrall said. 

“That is sensitive enough to discover a cluster, and having a negative result tells us there’s not a large problem that we don’t know about.”

Serology tests were also completed for workers at LSG Sky Chefs, where one case worked. These confirmed no one had an old infection for the virus, which meant they were ruled out as “upstream cases” of the recent infections, Verrall said. 

“We feel that we’ve really looked thoroughly at the question of community transmission and can exclude that.”

Mass testing in Taranaki, where the original infected family visited, also didn’t reveal further positive results. 

Verrall said yesterday’s Cabinet decision wasn’t driven only by economic considerations about the cost of extended lockdowns. 

While Cabinet was “well aware” of the economic consequences of lockdown, it still believed the best decision for businesses was a good health response, she said. 

“Over time, the Government’s gotten confident that the system it has for dealing with these chains of transmission is quite good. 

“So, we may well have other contacts of these new cases at the school test positive, but we have a system for dealing with that so we can deal with that without a change in alert level.”

She said lockdowns are for giving the Government time to evaluate its next steps when the situation isn’t clear, or to effectively contain a large outbreak. 

Leading Covid-19 modeller Shaun Hendy, who appeared on Breakfast before Verrall, said Kiwis need to remain vigilant. 

“There’s still a chance there could be a bigger cluster growing out there. And that’s why in Alert Level 2 in Auckland, we just can’t relax,” the University of Auckland professor said.

“This weekend, we’ve just got to be really vigilant and go get tested if we’ve got any symptoms.”

Hendy said moving to Alert Level 3 at the start of the week was the “right decision” when it looked like the August cluster of 2020 could be repeated.

“It didn’t pan out that way over the rest of the week. We didn’t discover a bigger cluster … We didn’t find any upstream cases and we didn’t find any people that could have been between the family and the border.”

He said the Government’s decision to ease alert level restrictions “reflects [its] increasing confidence in the contact tracing system”.

“We’ve had a lot of these little outbreaks previously and we’ve seen that our contact tracers are really good now at putting a ring around them and stopping them before they get large.”