New Zealand’s Second Lockdown A Tough But Right Call

On 17 August New Zealand’s Prime Minister informed the public that the country would be going into full lockdown, alert level 4, after a case of Covid-19 (later found to be the more transmissible Delta variant) was identified in the community outside of managed isolation. Although the initial time period for lockdown was set at a week at most for the entire country, New Zealand has only recently downgraded restrictions to a general limited movement rule, alert level 3, on September 1, while Auckland and Northland remained in full lockdown following increased cases of Covid-19. Subsequently, it was announced that Northland would move to alert level 3 on September 3 after further assurances were sought to identify whether Covid-19 was spreading north of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. Wastewater testing, like in other parts of the country, has shown that Covid is unlikely to be in Northland, hence the alert level change, whereas Auckland has steadily identified new cases since the outbreak began.

While the government’s decision to lock down the country has been largely accepted by the public, critics here and overseas have criticized the tough approach that New Zealand has once again enforced to control and eliminate the spread of the virus. Attributable to quite a few well-known observers, one thought asks why the entire nation had to stay at home for ‘one’ case. This was and is because of a few good reasons.

Firstly, no one knew at the time how Covid-19 had been spread beyond quarantine facilities which, other than in the case of approved exceptions, require returnees or approved visitors to New Zealand to get a negative Covid test (before they leave their two-week mandatory quarantine). New Zealand has been internationally considered a Covid free country, however cases of the virus have occasionally emerged at these border locations and are safely managed away from the  general public. Unfortunately, there have been incidents and close calls related to Covid spreading beyond these places for various reasons, or from visitors from the Trans-Tasman Bubble with Australia later testing positive for the disease after spending time in the New Zealand. In the case of the initial person who felt unwell, got tested, and returned a positive result for Covid-19, it was sensible to lock down considering that this first identified case was apparently unrelated to border quarantine measures. They had also traveled outside of the Auckland region to the Coromandel prior to their test, meaning Covid could have been spread well outside of the region too.

Following this, locking down was ultimately a sensible action to take as the number of cases was undoubtedly likely to grow exponentially, or have already been large, with the additional uncertainty of not knowing how long the virus had been circulating for. Thankfully the number of cases (later discovered to be the rapidly spreading Delta variant of Covid-19) were not found to be significant or geographically spread-out after lockdown and testing began, with subsequent genome sequencing tracing a likely connection to a breach within the Trans-Tasman Bubble arrangement. The move to a prompt lockdown caught many people off-guard and has undoubtedly been hard for those unprepared, however it has ultimately succeeded in freezing an outbreak from becoming unmanageable and untraceable.

This is critically important to underline, and something that many critics not from New Zealand will likely have overlooked, as the nation’s healthcare system is not equipped to manage a large outbreak of a highly disruptive virus (which is exactly what Covid-19 outbreaks have demonstrated worldwide). Dr. Alex Psirides, of Wellington, authoring a piece in Stuff on 8 August, warned before this current outbreak that the country’s intensive care units were effectively at full capacity without any Covid patients and could not handle the strain of a moderate increase in demand. Although it is true that New Zealand has a good standard of healthcare compared to many other nations, anyone who has paid some attention to the recent debates on Pharmac funding, the need to expand or build new hospitals, or the fact that nurses have been striking for better pay and work conditions, will realize that allowing an infectious disease to spread would mean a significant number of bad outcomes for already pressured public sector. And while it is true that most people who contract Covid will not require medical assistance to combat it, any dramatic increases in hospitalization levels is more than likely to complicate an already difficult healthcare situation.

It might be quite a stretch and alarmist to claim that if New Zealand’s government did not take this pandemic seriously, or simply gave up trying to manage it as best as it could, that it could lead to severe damage to society. But observing what has happened overseas, where Covid has been given much more room to spread, it is not hard to imagine similar or worse outcomes here in New Zealand if no actions were taken to manage Covid-19. At the very worst, with the healthcare sector of New Zealand running at high use already, it would not be hard to imagine it imploding and having ripple effects across society if the virus was not contained. After all, if the healthcare system and pandemic response systems fail to prevent a large degree of harm to society, it is then not unthinkable that trust in other public institutions would turn very negative and possibly dangerous. This is why the lockdown orders and Covid-19 public health guidelines exist, to prevent the worst possible effects of the pandemic.

Therefore, it is very difficult to knock New Zealand’s tested wisdom, since the outcome of the present lockdown has been a way for New Zealand to work itself out of this pandemic dilemma. Speaking of which, it is not as if New Zealand’s goal in all this is to eliminate the infectious disease forever or go into lockdown every time it occurs, as the Australian Prime Minister claimed last month (despite their own current Covid problems). In the week before the recent outbreak, the government had communicated plans to open up border connections that are deemed safe enough to ensure any Covid-19 risk was minimal. Additionally, consideration is being given to allowing incoming travel without the two week mandatory quarantine that is presently required upon arrival. Besides this, the ongoing vaccination program, which aims to offer everyone the opportunity to get immunized against Covid-19, is now reaching high rates of uptake compared to many countries around the world. Once this has reached near completion, anticipated at the end of this year, the government has effectively promised to ease restrictions on movement in, out, and around the country, ending the need for national lockdowns once these systems of dealing with the virus in the future have been implemented.

This is not to claim that the lockdowns have not had downsides or were not difficult for many New Zealanders. Economically, though New Zealand has fared better than many other countries in during the pandemic, this is of small comfort to those living in economic uncertainty. Whether on the business side or worker side of the lockdown response, the hidden or added costs have hit hard those already struggling with ‘normal’ before the pandemic began. Equally, those with health problems have had to put up with delayed treatment during the lockdowns, although urgent emergency help and scheduled surgery for life-threatening conditions has continued largely unaffected. It is still nonetheless hard to deal with delays to treatment for more regular health issues. There is also the mental health impact that lockdowns have on society – even though with today’s technology we can be ‘alone together,’ it is hard to imagine that a majority enjoyed keeping to their household bubble, especially if they are technology illiterate. The effects of the pandemic restrictions on people are undoubtedly likely to continue to manifest themselves long into the future.

Moreover, while the government of New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 has been commendable in comparison with many other countries’ either slow or confused approaches, it has not been without valid criticism. For instance, there has been recent ambiguity from the minister in charge of the Covid response over where the country’s Covid tracer app’s data is stored and who can access it. More importantly, there has also been the seemingly monthly misses of Covid-19 cases potentially spreading beyond quarantine facilities in the lead up to this current outbreak. Health experts had repeatedly warned that stricter rules and guidelines were needed to prevent further problems. For whatever reason though this advice was realized too late, likely because New Zealand’s ‘Covid free’ status made everyone forget the damage that the virus can inflict.

Regardless, while the current lockdown was not an easy decision to make, locking down was ultimately the right decision as Covid-19 spreading through New Zealand would have posed far worse outcomes for society than the negative effects of the lockdown. While it is not a desirable situation that anyone would want to be put in, especially alongside all the existing problems that New Zealand (and the rest of the world) already face, taking the pandemic seriously by putting the right restrictions in place has undoubtedly been the correct thing to do. Frankly, as the ironic Fred Dagg song “we don’t know how lucky we are” goes, we should be thankful that as New Zealanders we have a country that despite its flaws and mistakes has allowed for a large degree of normalcy and stability during this pandemic era.


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