If the highly infectious Delta variant of Covid-19 broke out in the community in New Zealand, the country would go straight into lockdown, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said today.
“This pandemic continues to escalate at this point,” he said.
"The variant which is increasingly being seen around the world is the Delta variant.
“This variant is more transmissible, it’s causing more hospitalisations, it is causing more people to die and it’s making younger people sick,” he said.
Hipkins said the Government had been “doing a lot of work” to plan for the possibility that Covid-19 could again make its way into the community.
He said the Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group, chaired by epidemiologist Sir David Skegg, had provided the Government with a report about how New Zealand might “reconnect with the world” while maintaining the country’s elimination strategy as well as keeping New Zealanders “safe”.
He said the report and its suggestions would be elaborated on tomorrow.
Hipkins highlighted how NSW had previously “stamped out Covid-19 cases very efficiently” using contact tracing methods, however they were unable to do it “this time”.
NSW is in its seventh week of restrictions and a stay-at-home order but case numbers have continued to rise, which Hipkins said meant “even the gold standard of contact tracing is not enough to keep the virus at bay”.
Hipkins said New Zealand needed to “take the lessons” from NSW’s experience so Covid-19 does not gain a foothold here.
He said there would be a very quick response to any potential case of the virus in the community.
Along with using contact-tracing systems, there would also be an escalation of alert levels meaning there would be a “short, sharp move to Covid-19 Alert Level 4”.
In the eventuality that infectious variants such as Delta broke out in the community, Hipkins said there the move to Level 4 would be in the affected area, or the “whole country depending on the circumstances”.
"A short, sharp lockdown is more likely to be successful. My message to all New Zealanders is that this is not over. Further lockdowns are possible."
He said the best public health response is also the best “economic response”.
“We don’t want to spend a drawn-out period of time with restrictions in place,” he said.
“A short, sharp lockdown is more likely to be successful in the current context than a longer, more drawn-out, lower-level response.”
“This is not over. We are still going to be dealing with Covid-19 for a while yet."
Hipkins said they would still happen at “short notice” and everyone should “have a plan” for what they would do in those circumstances.
He said in the last seven days, vaccination rates had increased very quickly which is encouraging but “also vital”.
In a statement, National Party leader Judith Collins said it was "imperative we vaccinate as many as people as possible, as quickly as possible".
“New Zealand is the slowest in the OECD in rolling-out the Covid-19 vaccine, and ranked only 120th in the world. As a result we are sitting ducks for the delta variant of Covid, which public health experts have now said New Zealand is liable to have in the community this year," she said.
“The sooner we vaccinate, the sooner we can begin reopening of our borders. But Government lethargy is letting New Zealand down.”
The leader of the Opposition reiterated her party's calls for the Government to set a target for vaccine coverage.
"My suspicion is that the Government doesn’t want to set a target in case it fails, as it has on so many other metrics. That’s not good enough and we all deserve better."