This year may well turn out to have been a “the golden year” for New Zealand, with more Covid-19 incursions and lockdowns inevitable once the border is reopened, a top Government advisor has warned.
The dire prediction came from Professor Sir David Skegg, who heads the Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group and has counselled the Government on how to re-open after the pandemic.
“When we reopen the border things are going to get tough. This is the golden year. In the last six months, we are the only country on earth just living a normal life,” he said at a health committee meeting on Thursday, the last of three meetings set up after Parliament was suspended amid the current Delta outbreak.
Skegg said he was “less optimistic” contact tracers would be able to get ahead of a new outbreak of the fast-spreading virus next year without lockdowns.
“When we start opening the borders we are going to get outbreaks of Covid-19 and they are going to be difficult to control,” he said. “This virus is not going away and unfortunately we are going to be in a war with this virus for years.”
Skegg also renewed his calls to strengthen public health units and the contact tracing workforce. This was one of his key recommendations to the Government earlier this month when he presented his report on how border restrictions can be eased once everyone is vaccinated.
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Since then, an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant has mushroomed to include more than 24,000 contacts, more than 400 locations of interest and 277 infections. New evidence has shown this variant is much more infectious than previous strains of Covid-19, with a case infecting another person two days earlier than the original virus.
“The people dealing with this outbreak much be working night and day, it’s turning out to be a major challenge,” he said.
“The period of time from when someone gets exposed to an infected person and then becomes infectious themselves is on average two days shorter. It does make us less optimistic that next year we will be able to continue elimination of outbreaks by testing and contact tracing alone.”
Most Kiwis have been living a relatively normal life over the past six months, while the economy has also done well. But that luck wasn’t going to last, Skegg said.
“We have gone for just under six months without a single outbreak. I hope this one is stamped out quite quickly [but] only time will tell.”
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s stretched health system was not equipped to deal with an outbreak
“When one starts to look at things like intensive care beds, we are way below the average for the OECD,” he told the committee, referring to the global grouping of developed nations. “That is one of many incentives to try and keep Covid-19 as low as possible.”
At her 1pm briefing on Thursday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that nearly 1400 contact tracers would be in call centres by the end of the day.