Combining public health measures kept us safe from COVID-19 – Expert Reaction

major international report released this morning has underscored the effectiveness of New Zealand’s stringent public health measures during ethe COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report reviewed international scientific evidence on the effectiveness of “non-pharmaceutical interventions” such as masks, social distancing, lockdowns, border restrictions, contact tracing, isolation, communication, and ‘environmental controls’ such as ventilation.

Using New Zealand as a key case study, the authors highlight that these measures granted limited protection on their own, but when combined, were “unequivocally effective in reducing the spread of infections” while vaccines and antivirals were being developed.

The SMC asked experts to comment. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting or follow up with the contact details provided. 

Professor Michael Baker, Department of Public Health/Te Tari Hauora Tūmatanui, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“It is helpful to have this comprehensive review of public health and social measures and their important role in managing the prevention and control of Covid-19 and other respiratory infections.

“Many of us have moved away from the term ‘non-pharmaceutical interventions’ which is not very precise, as it could encompass virtually everything that a country does to manage a pandemic, including health care and economic interventions. The term ‘public health and social measures’ is now more commonly used to refer to the specific interventions described in this review; Masks and face coverings; Social distancing and ‘lockdowns’; Test, trace and isolate; Travel restrictions and controls across international borders; and Environmental controls.

“As the reviews rightly point out, in the early phases of a pandemic, before we have vaccines and antivirals, these public health and social measures are all we have to manage an emerging infectious disease that may turn into a global pandemic.

“Aotearoa New Zealand’s experience has shown that these measures can protect an entire nation for more than a year while pharmaceutical measures are being developed.

“The Expert Working Group noted that ‘The weight of evidence from all studies suggests that wearing masks, particularly higher quality masks (respirators), supported by mask mandates, generally reduced the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection.’ This conclusion is reassuring and fits with our own assessment of the evidence.

“This review identified several important conclusions for the future management of emerging infectious diseases and pandemics.  In particular, that these measures were effective in influencing the outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic when rapidly and effectively deployed.

“They note that this action ‘buys time’ to allow the development, evaluation and manufacturing of specific therapies and vaccines. This review also advocated that researchers and their funders need to facilitate observational studies and national and international collaborations by planning this research in advance of a future pandemic, with standardised protocols for data collection and other important coordinating activities.”

No conflict of interest.