Coronavirus: New Zealand faces growing calls for ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown
- The nation of 5 million was largely virus-free until mid-August, when it was hit by an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant
- Health ministry data shows cases have been concentrated among people from the indigenous Maori community, who are also the least likely to be vaccinated
Just 62 per cent of the eligible population had been fully vaccinated as of Friday, with authorities hitting a speed bump in efforts to immunise 90 per cent of people aged 12 and older.
Data from the health ministry shows the outbreak has been concentrated among people from the indigenous Maori community, who are not only over-represented in new daily cases but are also least likely to get a vaccine.
On Saturday, New Zealand recorded an additional 41 local infections, raising the total caseload to 4,579. The government has said the daily numbers are likely to double over the next few weeks.
“At the moment transmission in Auckland is out of control. It’s not massive, but it’s not under control,” said Associate Professor Collin Fonotau Tukuitonga of the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.
New Zealand uses a four-tier coronavirus alert system that imposes strict stay-at-home and social-distancing restrictions at the highest levels, as well as requiring the wearing of face coverings in certain public places.
Until recently, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s administration had enjoyed widespread support for its handling of the pandemic, but Tukuitonga said signs of discontent had begun amid the latest outbreak.
“People think the increasing numbers of new cases has been a result of the government relaxing the restrictions too early, from Level 4 to Level 3, when we don’t have a high enough vaccination rate, especially among vulnerable groups,” he said.
As of Friday, Asians were the most vaccinated of the country’s major ethnic groups, according to health ministry data, with 750 per 1,000 people double jabbed. This compares with 636 per 1,000 for New Zealanders of European descent, 547 for Pacific peoples, and 413 for Maori.
Tukuitonga said inequity was “a chronic part of the New Zealand health system”, and history had shown that indigenous people tended to fare much worse than other groups during disease outbreaks.
“During the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand, the mortality rate in indigenous Maori was eight times higher than the European population. In the 1957 flu outbreak, the difference in mortality rate was six times, and in 2009, there was still a five-fold difference between indigenous Maori and others,” he said.
Socio-economic factors also put the indigenous community at higher risk of Covid-19, Tukuitonga said, citing a higher prevalence of obesity and diabetes as well as a higher likelihood they live in poor-quality, overcrowded housing.
Epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig from the University of Otago, Wellington, said the situation warranted a need for a decisive “circuit breaker” to reclaim control of the virus. The term “circuit breaker” was popularised by Singapore last year when it implemented a partial lockdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.
“A move back to Alert Level 4 is the best, and probably only, chance of reversing these highly concerning trends that are all moving in the wrong direction,” said Kvalsvig in comments published by the non-profit Science Media Centre. “Vaccination is not going to happen fast enough to reverse these trends and we need to buy time.”
Professor Michael Baker, a fellow University of Otago epidemiologist who is part of the health ministry’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group, said he favoured a wait-and-see approach.
“We need to see how the current Delta variant outbreak tracks and how the hospital system copes with current cases. There are about 60 diagnosed cases a day, with about 10 per cent of them going to hospital, but with an increasing trend,” he said.
“Another concern is that lockdowns are also hard for low-income families and marginalised populations. Public health practitioners like myself are concerned about the potential negative effects of this intervention, which should only be used if necessary to prevent the health care system being overwhelmed.”
While the government was initially optimistic about being able to stamp out the Delta outbreak, its decision on October 4 to shift Auckland down an alert level suggested it had abandoned that approach.
The move came weeks after Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins acknowledged the highly transmissible Delta strain had changed the rules of the game.
On Wednesday, he told reporters that although the government expected a “significant growth” in Delta infections, it had no plans to tighten restrictions amid compliance fatigue.
“[A circuit breaker is] not something the government is considering. The reality is the alert system we have relies on a very high degree of voluntary compliance,” Hipkins said at a Covid-19 press briefing.
“And what we’ve seen in countries that have tried to sustain those kinds of restrictions for a prolonged period of time [is that] the effectiveness of those restrictions diminishes.”
Tukuitonga, who is a member of the health ministry’s Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group, acknowledged that the call by health experts for a return to Level 4 would be deeply unpopular among Auckland residents and businesses, who have been under lockdown for eight weeks.
“So experts are talking about a ‘circuit breaker’. The principle is a short and sharp lockdown, maybe two weeks, to try to get on top of the number of new cases.”
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The calls come as New Zealand gears up for a national vaccination day on Saturday, in which multiple institutions across the country will participate in a “Vaxathon” to encourage vaccine-hesitant New Zealanders to get jabbed as part of the government’s bid to achieve a 90 per cent vaccination rate.
“Vaccinations will be available throughout the day and into the night on Saturday across GP clinics, many of whom are opening especially for the day, pharmacies, marae [Maori communal places], churches, mosques, community centres, workplaces and drive-through centres,” Ardern said on Wednesday, when announcing the event.
Air New Zealand will also be transforming one of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners into a clinic to promote the uptake of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, the only vaccine used by New Zealand.
Businesses have in recent weeks pursued a range of creative ideas to help boost the country’s vaccination rate.
Earlier this week, residents in the city of Hamilton enjoyed free McDonald’s burgers as they queued up to receive a jab, while KFC said it would over the next fortnight reward people in selected regions with a popcorn chicken snack box once they showed proof of vaccination.