The second nationwide Covid-19 lockdown – Expert Reaction

The country is going back into a level 4 lockdown at 11:59pm tonight, for just the second time since the pandemic began.

It comes after a community case was discovered in Auckland. The man, a 58-year-old male from Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore, had also travelled to Coromandel.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“We know that fast isolation of infected individuals is key to containing any outbreak of COVID-19, and contact tracing is a critical part of the process. It is reassuring that the identified active case was using NZ COVID Tracer to help keep track of where he had been. Unfortunately, we know from the national statistics that the vast majority of New Zealanders have not been participating enough. That will be one of the contributors to the decision to enter a lockdown, because the government does not have confidence that we, as a country, have enough information to support rapid contact tracing.

“As the risk level increases, it becomes more important that everyone is collecting the information that they need to support contact tracing. In the unfortunate event that you get COVID-19, or someone that you have interacted with gets COVID-19, isolating you is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the disease. Contact tracing allows us to do that more quickly and help us avoid widescale lockdowns.

“It is not too late to use NZ COVID Tracer to add manual entries so that you have one place to keep track of where you have been and when. If you can’t use NZ COVID Tracer, then make sure that you are keeping your own written records of where you have been and when.

“It is also important to note that at a time of high stress, this is the exact environment that is conducive for misinformation to spread. Many of us will have seen this happen this afternoon as rumours were flying around about the case and what that might mean for us. It is all the more important to take a moment to double-check information that you receive before passing it on. Additionally, it is important to be careful about scams and attacks that might play on your anxieties, such as phishing attacks that ask you to click on a link that purports to be related to COVID-19.”

Conflict of interest statement: I have had interactions with the Ministry of Health around digital contact tracing in an academic capacity, but am not employed or paid by them.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“Moving the whole of New Zealand to Alert Level 4 is definitely the right move and will give us the best chance of nipping this outbreak in the bud before it can get too large.

“Data from the outbreaks last year and the fact that the Delta variant is about twice as infectious, suggest that Alert Level 3 would not have been enough to control the outbreak if community transmission has become established, whereas Level 4 likely will be. Vaccination will help slow the outbreak, but coverage is still too low to make a big difference. Although it hasn’t yet been confirmed, it’s almost certain this case is the Delta variant of Covid-19 because all cases in MIQ over the last few weeks have been Delta.

“The one thing that could get us out of jail is if contact tracing or genome sequencing establish a close link to the border with minimal community exposure. If that’s the case, we might still get away with only a handful of cases. But because there’s no clear link to the border, it’s also possible the virus has been spreading undetected for a significant period of time. In that case there could easily be more than 100 people infected by now and a strict lockdown is our only available option.

“Although the case lives in Auckland, the virus could be anywhere in the country. The national alert level change buys us some time to see results of testing and contact tracing to assess how widely the outbreak has spread.

“One thing we’ve learned from watching Sydney is that half-measures can quickly lead to disaster. It’s better to go hard at the start and then relax than the other way round. With Delta there are no second chances. If we all play our part, there’s every reason to think that this outbreak can eventually be crushed. How long that takes will depend on how many other cases are out there, and we’ll know more on that front in the next few days.

Conflict of interest statement: I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.

Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“As we watch and listen to the livestream, clearly the Government are assuming this to be the Delta variant of Covid-19 and will go ‘quick and hard’. The national ‘short sharp shock’ lockdown for 3 days is understandable given the likelihood of Delta and what we know from our neighbours Australia and reports from the recent MIQ case – we cannot take any chances if this is the Delta variant.

“Presently we just do not have enough of the population already double vaccinated to take any risks. We may have faced different options if we had a high level of population vaccination (like in the UK over the last couple of months). A quick level 4 lockdown minimises the risk of further transmission and gives individuals and authorities time to identify other cases and limit risk of onward transmission.

“While it might seem OTT to deliver a national lockdown so swiftly, we all know how mobile people are within Aotearoa New Zealand, especially as the timing of this case’s infection coincides with the end of the recent school holidays when many families/whanau were travelling around NZ.

“Can everyone who was not ‘scanning’ into places visited in the last 5 days recall exactly every place visited? The message is clear – we cannot be complacent. Scan, hand hygiene, mask up, and if you feel unwell with any Covid/cold symptoms at all, arrange to get tested and isolate until you get your test results.”

Note: Lesley has received a Health Research Council grant for this research: “Improving effectiveness and equity in the operation of COVID-19 ‘self-isolation’”

Jacqui Maguire, Registered Clinical Psychologist, comments:

“Once again, our team of 5 million are reminded just how fragile our state of ’new normalcy’ is as we re-enter level 4 lockdown.  However, it is important that we all remember we have been here before; and not only did we survive that experience, we learnt many lessons from it.  Predicting that the nation will suddenly experience a wave of anxiety is not only unhelpful, it may be false and in fact damaging.  As I reiterated many times last year, every person will respond to this announcement differently. Resigned with the inevitable, grateful for a swift moving government, angry at the virus that has taken over out lives and yes of course for some fear of the ‘what if’s’ to name a few. Whatever the emotion, don’t judge it. Just notice it and ’name it to tame it’.

“What is important in the hours to come:

  1. Don’t jump ahead of yourself. There is zero point guessing the unknown. Wait for the briefings to gather your information.
  2. Trust in the experts. They proved in 2020 they can navigate us through a storm.
  3. Follow the rules. That’s going to help us exit level 4 as soon as possible.
  4. Stay connected. We know how important relationships and connection are for wellbeing and mental health. Call, check in, wave when you walk past someone and smile.
  5. Get off social media and stick to the 1pm briefings. Information bombardment causes a whole lot of issues in itself.
  6. Ask yourself what was most helpful during the last lockdown. Are you someone that needs that quiet cup of tea away from the family, or is a walk a non negotiable for you. Plan as an individual, and as a bubble, about how you are going to spend your lockdown days.
  7. Take care, look after yourself and each other. And if you are struggling reach out, whether that be to someone in your bubble, a loved one over the phone or a trained professional at the end of a helping.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

“I welcome the announcement that New Zealanders are being asked to wear masks when they leave home. This is a key outbreak control measure because it significantly reduces the amount of virus people are breathing into the air around them. So it’s especially relevant in the current situation when we don’t know the extent of community spread, and potentially a large number of people in the community may be infectious without knowing it.

“There are two main ways to maximise the effectiveness of wearing a mask. The first is to add multiple layers to increase the filtering effect – aiming for at least three layers, more if you can. The second is to make sure your mask fits closely around your face so that no air is escaping out of the sides. If you can, ask someone to check your mask before you go out so you’re confident that there are no gaps.

“A final reminder is that communication will be challenging when everyone is masked up. We’ll need to be patient and creative in our interactions with strangers. It might be helpful to point to things, write key messages down, or show somebody an image or text on your phone. Alert Level 4 is a great opportunity to brush up on your finger-spelling skills  – that’s the alphabet of New Zealand Sign Language. It’s a great way to clear up confusion when someone is struggling to hear.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Sarb Johal, registered clinical psychologist, comments:

“With this community case in Auckland, and nationwide lockdown, we have far less room for lack of consistency in our protective behaviour. We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely that the variant is Delta. Where we may have got away with not sticking to public health measures so solidly on previous occasions, the odds are stacked against us this time. We should be prepared to act consistently in every place we are, and at all times to protect ourselves and each other.

“We’ll be best at doing this if we can stay calm and act where we have the ability to cover all our bases effectively – because when we are not calm, we can miss things, like forgetting to scan, or not masking up when we really need to be. So take time to prepare yourself and think things through. Pack a mask, plan how you’re going to stay distant, take your sanitizer, remember what worked for you before when working at home for you and your family.

“The objective here is to isolate cases, and to make sure the virus doesn’t spread any further. Stay physically distant, wear a mask, wash your hands and get vaccinated when it’s clear what that process might look like after we find out more. So we need to do all the things, all the time to maximise our chances of getting out of this situation quickly, and in parallel, to build up community protection against the worst effects of the coronavirus.”

Note: This comment has also been published on Sarb Johal’s blog. Sarb is the author of the Covid-19 pandemic psychology book, Steady: Keeping Calm in a World Gone Viral.

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

“It is obvious that the goal of the decision to go into level 4 for different lengths of time across the country is to contain the possibility of spread. Spread of Covid-19 follows a pattern where relatively few people spread to many and most people may not spread to many, yet the maths of spread work out to be that, one person on an average can spread to five to six people for the delta strain, making this a highly contagious strain.

“If you add to the fact that this is an airborne virus, it is super important that we scan in or keep or leave a record of wherever we are using the Covid Tracer App, remember to wear masks, get vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, and stay away from crowded spaces (remembering that crowding supermarkets is a risk factor for spread).”

No conflict of interest declared.