The move to Level 2 – Expert Reaction

New Zealand will be returning a “new, safer normal” on Thursday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced this afternoon.

Public spaces such as malls and cafes will re-open on Thursday, as well as all schools next Monday (18 May), and bars later next week (21 May). However, gatherings are to be limited to ten people.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this announcement and how it will affect different aspects of New Zealanders lives, including:

  1. Public health
  2. Mental health
  3. Children
  4. Work and employment
  5. Tourism
  6. Technology
  7. Comparison to Taiwan

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“It’s no secret that I would have preferred New Zealand to stay at Alert Level Three for a little longer, just to ensure that the gains we have made from Alert Levels Three and Four were locked in. I’m grateful we are making a staggered move to Alert Level Two and that the sizes of gatherings will be limited initially.

“The government have clearly taken a pragmatic approach that is trying the balance the gains we have made with keeping our ‘team of 5 million’ together. Now it’s up to each one of us to do all we can to prevent us seeing a surge in cases in the coming weeks. That means working from home if we can. It means staying home if we have even the slightest hint we are unwell and making arrangements to get a test. It means keeping track of where we have been and who we have been with so that our contact tracers can do their job if they need to. And it means limiting our hugs and kisses and keeping up with washing our hands.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“The loosening of physical distancing rules will be a welcome relief to many. But it’s important to realise that when we’re counting cases today, we’re looking back in time at viral transmission that was occurring a week or two ago. This means that we’ve not fully seen the impact of the change from Level 4 to Level 3 on viral transmission, and that impact still won’t be completely visible by the time the country moves to Level 2. In particular, if there is still COVID-19 in circulation, people may soon be using public transport while asymptomatic and unaware that they are infectious.

“A bus in winter is a closed environment that is perfect for transmitting viruses. It’s concerning that the Government is not recommending that members of the public wear face coverings on public transport – and even appears to be suggesting that mask wearing is a risky behaviour – when both experimental evidence and the experience in many other countries indicates a useful protective effect. There are many documented instances of COVID-19 spread on public transport and this setting has potential to be a weak link in protecting the public from COVID-19 spread at Level 2. That’s a pity because the Level 2 restrictions are in general balanced, appropriate, and well-designed to keep us safe.”

Conflict of interest statement: “All views expressed are in my university capacity only, and have no connection with my current advisory role with the Ministry of Health.”

Associate Professor Dr Arindam Basu, College of Education, Health & Human Development, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The decision of the government to open the economy at this stage is pragmatic but with a warning about reducing the size of socialising. This advisory is particularly significant, as the age group that is most affected is also highly mobile, so there is a risk of new infections and clusters. This is because there is some evidence that the virus is mutating rapidly (see here, where the authors have shown that new mutations are conferring survival advantage to the virus and that it increases their transmission potential); besides, new clusters and infections are known to recur after easing of lockdown conditions (South KoreaSingapore).

“However, between the time when the country moved from Level IV to Level III and now, the number of new cases has continued to plummet, the number of tests have increased significantly and despite increased number of tests, the number of new cases continue to remain low; likewise contact tracing capacity of the country has also increased.

“Hence all things considered, given our levels of infections and low rates of new infection, the government has taken a pragmatic decision today. The caveats issued are commendable, as we should take precautionary measures (hand-washing, respiratory hygiene, wearing a mask while going outdoors, social distancing/physical distancing, and limited interactions). Assuming that testing capacity will continue to increase, as will be the capacity for contact tracing, and screening of asymptomatic people at more places. These will help to keep the infection in control and control the emergence of new clusters and new infections.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Murray Cox, Te Pūnaha Matatini and Massey University, comments:

“Be sensible and be careful. That’s the take-home message from today’s announcement. The reward is a return towards normality. The old reminders are still there – keep gatherings small, remain physically distant, stay home if you’re sick, and wash your hands. The actions that will reduce the spread of the virus are the same ones your mum would approve of. So, get out there and get back to your lives, but just be smart about it.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington and Umbrella Health, comments:

“The announcement of moving to Level 2 will bring a sense of relief for many. However, for a significant number the return to work and school may bring about a return of worry and anxiety. Despite the obvious downsides, Levels 3 & 4 did bring a sense of protection and security for some who suffer from anxiety. As we emerge from the shadows of strict lockdown old fears about becoming unwell may reappear. Triggers for anxiety that have lain dormant for weeks, such as the fear of social evaluation by others, may arise again. For those with a history of anxiety and depression it will be important to be on the lookout for the return of these signs, remember how they’ve coped before, and seek help early.

“As we move to Level 2, we may see the emergence of stress and anxiety associated with the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 virus. Businesses may be lost, houses may need to be sold, help may have to be sort when it was previously never needed. For those who have lost their jobs or significant levels of income, breaking out of our bubbles may bring with it feelings of loss, shame, and guilt as we come face-to-face with these harsh realities and have to front up to others. In these times the message of being kind to one another, and being kind to ourselves – which can often be more difficult than being kind to others – should not be lost.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Hiran Thabrew, Child Psychiatrist and Paediatrician, University of Auckland and Auckland District Health Board, comments:

“The first thing to do is acknowledge to yourselves and your children how well you’ve done to get through levels 3 and 4. It’s important to celebrate these achievements and to take credit for doing your part, so model these behaviours to your children – it will help them learn a lifelong lesson about teamwork.

“The next is to remember that although the country is coming out of lockdown, things are not returning to the ‘old normal’; instead they are heading to a ‘new normal’ for the coming months. So, this will take some preparation, some adjustment and then some care.

“Children feel safe and thrive in a predictable environment. So, as you may have done when we entered lockdown, think about what the new family routines will be. Are your children returning to school? If so, for how long each day, how will they get there and what might be different at school? How will your work routines change their time with you after school? Talk about these issues as a family and consider drawing up a new family routine that you pin to the fridge, so that everyone knows what’s coming. Include both necessary tasks and some fun ones. Try this out for a week and adjust it as required.

“Just as for adults, moving to level 2 is likely to result in different reactions for different children. Some will be thrilled to hang out with their friends, others will be dreading going back to regular classes at school; some will be dying to get back to sports, others will be anxious about catching COVID-19 after weeks of staying away from people and relentlessly washing their hands.  Let your children (and fellow adults) know that it is okay to feel whichever way they feel, but that it is also important to manage these feelings in order to do the things you decide to do as a family over the coming weeks. Continue to check-in with them regularly about how things are going and how they are feeling, but don’t dwell on them for too long or they could increase worry.

“Most children would have experienced the joys and difficulties of returning to school after the long school holidays. Some, particularly those with conditions like anxiety and autism spectrum disorder may predictably take longer to settle into schooling routines. If this sounds like your child, think about what you can do to help them settle into the new routine, rather than expecting them to manage the transition unsupported. Some things that may help are paying a visit to school, starting with half days and having some extra 1:1 time after school until their new routines have been established.  Don’t forget to give them time to play – both for fun and to release any stresses of the day (there is no age limit on this piece of advice).

“Finally, if your child shows signs of struggling with adjustment to life at level 2, for instance, their mood or behaviour deteriorates significantly, they regress (act like a younger version of themselves), and especially if you are concerned about their mental health or wellbeing, please talk with your GP or try to get some help from a counsellor on 1737.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr. Paula O’Kane, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management (HRM), University of Otago Business School, comments:

“From an employee well-being point of view, we urge employers to consider their expectations at level two. For those able to continue to work from home employers should engage in open conversations about whether this can and should continue, and in what form it should take. There are health and safety issues around workstations and workload, isolation and connection. These may have been pushed to one side during lockdown, but cannot be ignored forever. Workplaces need to facilitate new arrangements for work. This involves conversations and communication, compassion and understanding.

“From those who need to return to work, the workplace may feel different, physical distancing will still need to be occur, face-to-face formal and informal meetings will be more distanced. Expectations need to be set, through discussion, and these have to be reinforced by the organisation. People need to be allowed to worry, be respected, and be supported.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Bernard Walker*, College of Business & Law, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Employer groups have successfully captured media attention and lobbied for their interests. But now that they’ve got to Level 2, those same employer groups should have to take on a new type of social responsibility.

“Covid 19 is still a threat in New Zealand. We are still getting new cases, and across the world, the disease remains a major public health problem. The risk increases as the virus keeps mutating, creating newer strains with higher transmission risk.

“Level 2 does not mean going back to business-as-usual. In reality, we are only nano-seconds away from the chaos and grief overseas. The success of Level 2 depends on everyone acting together to stop transmission of the disease.

“For all workplaces, it will be demanding, keeping very high standards for working safely under Covid 19. Physical spacing, adjusted work practices and hygiene are matters that all businesses will have to take on board in a new, serious way.

“There are other threats. Smaller ‘rogue businesses’ that do not belong to Employers Associations are ones that often do not keep high health standards. It’s a controversial suggestion, but if Employer Associations’ lobbying made it possible for these businesses to open, should those Associations now also reach out to get these non-member businesses working safely under Level 2?

“Secondly, Police worry about social mayhem, with bars and parties undermining the social distancing and contact tracing that Level 2 depends on. Will employers step up and go the extra distance by helping educate their employees? Although it is outside work-hours, it is similar to discouraging drink-driving, as part of shared social responsibility.

“Employer associations have done an excellent job in resourcing and supporting their ‘good businesses’ that are their members. A pandemic is a new scene though, with new demands, and everyone has to go outside their normal roles. Employers and their associations should step out in new ways, and be leaders in making this happen.”

No conflict of interest.

*Associate Professor Bernard Walker made minor changes to his comments, which were updated on this website on 13 May 2020.

Dr Julia Albrecht, Department of Tourism, University of Otago, comments:

“The imminent move to alert level 2 this coming Thursday is what many tourism and hospitality businesses have hoped for. The Prime Minister has effectively encouraged domestic movement as well as supporting local businesses.

“Although this is certainly good news for businesses, it is by no means an all-clear to engage in business as usual.

“The remaining operational restrictions mean that businesses are not necessarily put in a position to operate profitably. Depending on the site or product, social distancing protocols will need to be such that customers will use more space and/ or more staff time, or careful scheduling which likely reduces the possible number of customers.

“Businesses will need to carefully assess their pricing structure to take into account the conflicting priorities resulting from the desire to keep staff on and the business going, and the realities of what New Zealand customers are willing and able to spend.”

No conflict of interest.

Simon McCallum, Senior Lecturer, Wellington Faculty of Engineering, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Any technology solution must supplement manual contact tracing by trained individuals. Those are the frontline of tracing. Technology will serve as an additive system which can help to trace contacts quickly, particularly where the person with a positive test may not know the contact details of a casual contents.

“Under level 2 we are still advised to decrease/minimise our casual contacts. Using mobile phones to record everywhere you travel will help contact tracing. The PM has asked us to record where we have been. There are various technology solutions but all come with compromises. The easiest is probably Google maps with location services turned on. You can see your locations in the “timeline”, but you are sharing your data with Google. For those who want more control of their data Open Street Maps ( OsmAnd Android / OsmAnd iOS ) with the GPX plugin can be used. However, this would only allow the contact tracing to know where you were, but critically not who was there at the same time. This is what the technology for tracing would help with.

“One significant issue is whether particular locations will be allowed to refuse entry to people who cannot be traced, will there be a ‘You must share your contact details to be let in’ scenario. This could be technology or simply a business card with a timestamp so that everyone in a location at a time can be contacted.

“Speed of contact tracing is critical. The technology will help with the speed of tracing.

“There are also questions around how individuals who have been in contact with a positive case should be notified. What details are shared with them, what should be their next steps, etc.? Notifications should be informative and helpful without causing panic, or compromising privacy of positive cases. The notification process may be better handled outside the app by health professionals

“Any technology such as contact tracing must also move beyond a Eurocentric approach by adopting kaupapa Māori technological models, frameworks and systems. Without such involvement, gaps may continue to widen between Indigenous and Eurocentric approaches in regards to any meta-data capturing techniques employment to manage such systems, and engagement with Indigenous communities.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Henry Chung, School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, Massey University, comments:

“NZ is viewed by Taiwanese as one model example in Western world. So anything it has done would be well reported here and throughout Asia. I think the most important point is the ‘incremental’ approach as this is also the approach used by Taiwan. Here the bars are suggested to be opened when they can provide social distance and also have great cleaning procedures in place.

“Moving down to Level 2 would also signal that the situation in NZ is under great control, and this opens up a big international business opportunity for overseas customers coming down to NZ. People here also think that the adoption of the ‘green passport’ practice can be great as Asian customers can know that they would be coming to a very safe and virus-free environment. I understand many people here cannot wait for this practice.

“Also people keep asking when Air NZ can open up their Auckland-Taipei link again. They are wondering if we can move up the opening earlier from 30 June 2020. Again a large amount of inquiries on this vital link. Air NZ moves are viewed as symbols of NZ and its government. To have an earlier opening up not only opens up huge opportunities but also suggests that NZ is a safe country and, most importantly, its international reputation is lifted up dramatically throughout Asia and the World.”

No conflict of interest.