When scientists in Auckland began modelling an outbreak of Covid-19 in the city’s densely populated southern regions – situated right by the country’s only international airport – they hoped they were participating in a drill scenario.
“This is exactly the type of outbreak we were worried about, and in fact it’s exactly what happened,” said Professor Shaun Hendy, who works modelling the progression of the disease for the government.
“We’ve been looking at different ways it [coronavirus] could come back and they’re all low-likelihood ways, but this was very much one of the scenarios we considered. For a while we were hoping it was a drill.”
Just last week New Zealand celebrated a significant milestone: 100 days free of the deadly disease, which has claimed 800,000 lives worldwide and 22 in New Zealand.
But as the seemingly successful elimination strategy was being lauded, both domestically and overseas, the virus was stealthily circulating through the community, with at least one victim falling ill with symptoms as early as 31 July.
Three of the person’s family members became infected in the next two weeks but a positive test was not returned until 11 August, by which time dozens more people in the country’s largest city – and its economic powerhouse – had fallen ill.
The latest outbreak is a huge blow for the island nation, heralded as a global success story for effectively eliminating the virus in June after a tough seven-week lockdown, which, like similar lockdowns around the world, led to a growth in unemployment, a spike in domestic violence and a surge in mental health problems.
“Go hard and go early” was New Zealand’s motto, and combined with strict border controls and high compliance with lockdown measures from “the team of 5 million” it seemed to have worked. Until now.
“I was gutted obviously. We had reached 100 days so it does feel like a kick in the teeth,” said Dr Siousxie Wiles, a British microbiologist and science communicator who lives in Auckland, a city of 1.5 million.
“But we know that with people coming in there is the chance this would happen.”
Wiles praised the government’s resurgence strategy as “absolutely spot-on” and said it had shown an impressive ability to adapt and move swiftly through alert levels.
“They have been very fast and very transparent. The speed which they moved people up the alert levels really frightened people, but this is the way to do it. What we will see now is: how quickly can you stamp out an outbreak?”
“We have done it before, we can do it again”
The prime minister made the decision for Auckland to re-enter lockdown six hours after the first positive test result came back – light years ahead of the likes of Vietnam, South Korea, and the Australian state of Victoria all of whom were slower to reinstate lockdown.
This decisiveness has won her widespread praise, apart from the opposition who said they should have been consulted.
On Friday afternoon Ardern announced a softer resurgence plan than many had expected, one that will allow the economy – even in Auckland – to cope, if not flourish.
Tracking and tracing cases related to the south Auckland cluster is the priority, and New Zealand police have been drafted in to help investigate the source or “index case” that kicked it off, with efforts focusing on the borders and the Ports of Auckland area, as well as a cool store facility that handled international freight in the city’s west.
In addition, active cases are being quarantined in government-run hotels – a new measure adopted from some south Asian countries.
Testing in the community has been ramped up with 30,000 tests conducted in 48 hours and labs working 24 hours. Auckland will remain at level 3 for an additional two weeks, giving health authorities time to test and track everyone related to the outbreak. The rest of the country will remain at level 2.
The resurgence plan has earned the approval of epidemiologists, and so far, the compliance of the general public.
But the fact it has to be enacted at all is being viewed as a major failure for the Labour coalition government, who are now just five weeks out from a general election. Attention is turning to the borders, where more than 30,000 people have entered a fortnight of mandatory quarantine on returning to New Zealand.
Management of the dozens of quarantine hotels has long been lambasted as “shambolic” by the opposition, after a series of people escaped the facilities and made trips to the liquor store and supermarket, prompting the police and army to start regular patrols.
In other cases, perhaps as many as 1,000 of them, returning New Zealanders were allowed to leave the facilities without being tested.
It is at these hotels, and the international airport facilities, where Covid-19 is thought to have re-entered New Zealand. It is a scenario that was modelled and planned for, but public outrage is growing that such a high-risk frontline was not better policed, after a report revealed 60% of those working on the border had not been tested.
Wiles called the oversight “deeply disappointing” while the Otago university epidemiologist Sir David Skegg said it was “extraordinary” that border workers were not being tested weekly, on a compulsory basis.
“We haven’t been doing weekly testing of workers, so I think that may have turned out to be a missed opportunity to avoid this lockdown,” Professor Hendy said.
Skegg agreed and called the government’s handling of the border complacent.
“I think it is absolutely vital for our elimination status that we have the most stringent protections at the border.”
The health minister, Chris Hipkins, has said all border workers would be tested for the virus by the weekend, but with the disease having circulated in the community for up to two weeks, the horse has well and truly bolted.
A second wave, a second lockdown
In Auckland compliance with lockdown measures has been high, even as the city haemorrhages money – a calculated NZ$150m in the last three days alone.
Zafer Isiklar is a cafe owner in the Auckland suburb of Mt Eden. He believes this outbreak is the result of incompetence. “They didn’t control the borders or manage quarantine well,” Isiklar said.
“Even after the army was brought in, people [broke out]. They were incompetent. I believe this community transmission has come either from across the border or from those in isolation.”
The region of south Auckland is one of the most densely populated in the country, and the suburb of the latest outbreak is a mere 14km from the country’s only international airport.
Hundreds of airport and border workers live in south Auckland, and its proximity to quarantine hotels also had it under Covid modellers’ microscope as a high-risk site for a potential outbreak.
According to Statistics New Zealand half of all New Zealand’s overcrowded homes are in Auckland, with the highest rates in south Auckland. Pacific and Māori people are the most likely to live in overcrowded homes. If it was going to happen anywhere, it was here.
But Hendy said there were some silver linings to New Zealand’s outbreak, and the prime minister has stressed that things are not complex or severe enough to warrant a level 4 nationwide lockdown, as so far the outbreak is limited to a single cluster.
“We definitely have had the benefit of learning from what has happened in other countries,” Hendy said.
“The Melbourne example was quite instructive. We learnt that suburban lockdown just didn’t work.”
The prime minister has said that New Zealand will be building on it’s earlier success, which she calls “evidence-based”, “following the philosophy of hard and early.”
“As we have said from the start, our overall Covid-19 strategy remains elimination. That means stamping out the virus whenever it comes back,” Ardern said.
“We have been world-leading in our Covid response – we can do all of that again.”
For Aucklander Craig Shearer, a software-developer from Hobsonville, any “science-based approach to handling the pandemic” wins his approval.
“I think we have dodged a bullet,” Shearer says.
“There have been very few deaths. I think it was the right thing to do to lock things down as soon as it was discovered there had been community transmission. If we didn’t do that we could be in a situation like Victoria or even the [United] States with a wide spread of the virus.”
Additional reporting by Phil Taylor in Auckland
Source: The Guardian |NewsColony