The case for staying at Red: Michael Baker explains why

Source: 1News

High Covid cases in schools is one of the reasons University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker agrees with the Government's decision to keep New Zealand at the Red setting of the traffic light system.

Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday afternoon that the country will remain at Red until at least April 14, when another Cabinet review will take place.

The announcement was made alongside Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, who said there was "still a long tail of people in hospital".

There was hope of Auckland possibly moving to Orange after the centre of the outbreak had recently peaked, but Ardern said public health advice is that it's too soon to move from Red.

Baker told 1News he believed it was the right decision, saying there is still high demand on the health system and the cautious approach has paid off so far.

"There's still a lot of transmission happening in New Zealand, we don't always know where it comes from," he said.

NZ still in the midst of Omicron outbreak

Baker told 1News New Zealand has the "biggest" advantage of being able to learn from what is happening overseas, being "two months behind" the rest of the world.

"The overwhelming infectiousness of Omicron and its sub-variants means we are still right in the middle of a pandemic," he said.

"We did elude Omicron until late January and most countries are seeing a second wave so we may avoid a second wave from a new variant by taking a cautious approach.

"The emergence of BA.2, displacing BA.1 means a second wave is a danger if we lift controls too rapidly because everyone is 'so over it' [Covid].

"It's in everyone's best interests to avoid a yo-yo effect.

"We reached peak immunity following booster doses of the Covid-19 vaccine probably a month or two ago but waning immunity means infection rates will increase. So it does favour a more cautious approach," Baker said.

'Bitter' outcome - Restaurant Association

People dining outdoors.

Baker acknowledged the hospitality industry would be frustrated as the Restaurant Association issued a statement after Ardern's announcement, calling it a "bitter disappointment".

“Patronage continues to be down on previous years and whilst this is starting to pick up, the decision to stay in Red will not do much to help consumer confidence,” said Marisa Bidois, CEO of the Restaurant Association.

The March member feedback survey from the Restaurant Association indicated that businesses continue to struggle, with 90% of respondents saying their revenue is down on 2021 with the average revenue decrease sitting at 34%.

“We are not public health experts, however the seated and separated rule is incredibly challenging for venues.

“Hospitality venues are places where people want to socialise with others, particularly in bars and clubs so the enforcement of this rule will continue to be a sizeable issue for the industry.

“Once again, we continue to advocate for financial support in the form of a wage subsidy for our businesses who are facing significantly reduced patronage as a result of this outbreak.

“As well as more financial support, we would also like to see the Government outline a tangible vision for the recovery of our sector which clearly sets out the indicators required for a move to orange.

“We believe this should include a change of rhetoric from one of fear to one of hope and incentives, such as a subsidized dining scheme, to get people back out and stimulating the economy,” Bidois said.

BusinessNZ also expressed frustration on Monday.

BusinessNZ Chief Executive Kirk Hope says more clarity is needed around acceptable rates of admission for the health sector, so businesses can better anticipate the threshold for a change in settings.

"Remaining at Red is a disappointing announcement for the many businesses unable to operate normally at the highest traffic light setting.

"The Government needs to outline specifically the conditions in which we can all expect see a shift to lower settings before the next review on April 14.

"Businesses want to start planning for a return to normality, be resourced and ready to go when the time comes," Hope said.

"It's frustrating for hospitality but it's in all our interests to make indoor environments as safe as possible, because Covid isn't going away," Baker said.

"We need to navigate our way through this the best way we can."

Concern over transmission in schools

Baker said schools are a major source of transmission amid the current outbreak as a third of all cases are recorded in under-20-year-olds.

"I'm very concerned about schools, because if you move from Red to Orange, at the Orange setting for schools, we've only got 10% of our children vaccinated, if you remove masks, there aren't many barriers to stop them getting infected - unless we can improve ventilation in schools.

"I think it's probably a setting where a lot of transmission is happening, I think we need to keep some barriers there," he said.

By mid-morning on Monday, the Ministry of Education reported 4898 Covid cases across New Zealand schools, a total which included Friday's count.

In Auckland, that number totalled 652.

Cases in schools were transmitted mainly in primary schools, Auckland recorded 110 cases over the period from April 1 to 4, intermediate schools had 11 cases, secondary schools 29 and early learning centres 42.

Canterbury also recorded high numbers of cases over the same period, 105 cases being recorded in primary schools in the region, five cases at intermediate schools, 24 at secondary schools and 93 at early learning centres.

Sean Teddy, Hautū (Leader) Operations and Integration/Te Pae Aronui for the ministry, said schools/kura and early learning services (ELS) have layers of preventative measures in place to protect teachers/support staff, students and children onsite.

"We know that the more layers of protection in place (e.g., good hygiene practices, handwashing, ventilation, cleaning and disinfecting high touch areas regularly etc.), the harder it is for the virus to be transmitted."

Fewer cases but not few enough for Orange

Chris Hipkins told Q+A he believes there is "certainly more infection in the community than the testing numbers will be showing".

“It’s encouraging to see fewer cases. Yesterday was the lowest number we’ve seen since February 25,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Monday.

“Four weeks ago we were averaging around 20,000 cases a day, compared to today where that average is just over 13,000. But while the drop in cases is mainly in Auckland and Wellington, other places aren’t yet in the same position.

“Hospitalisations have dropped in Auckland, but continue to plateau or increase in regions like Canterbury, Waikato and Northland. Hospitalisations are not peaking in some DHBs until mid-April.

“As a result, the public health advice is that it is not yet the time to ease the existing restrictions and drop down to Orange. Ministers will review these settings again next week.

“We have put this check in place due to the pace at which we are seeing the Covid-19 situation changing, and acknowledging that Easter and the upcoming school holidays are an important time for businesses – particularly those in our tourist regions,” Hipkins said.

"As we’ve learned over the last two years, keeping ourselves and each other safe from Covid-19 continues to be a team effort."