New Zealand appears to be letting go of its zero-covid strategy as it confronts the difficulty of trying to contain the highly contagious delta coronavirus variant. From 6 October, it will start winding back restrictions in Auckland, where an outbreak of the virus has continued to grow in spite of a strict seven-week lockdown.
Experts fear the move will lead to a spike in cases that will overwhelm the health system, since only just over 50 per cent of people in Auckland are fully vaccinated, but the government has come under public pressure to ease the gruelling restrictions.
Early in the pandemic, New Zealand opted for an aggressive covid-19 elimination strategy, which meant banning international visitors and rapidly locking down whenever any cases were detected. This approach initially paid off – in early August 2021, the country celebrated a five-month stretch without a single locally acquired case.
Then, on 17 August, a man in Auckland – New Zealand’s most populous city – tested positive for the delta variant. The city immediately locked down, meaning residents could only leave their homes for essential reasons, and schools and non-essential businesses were shut.
Despite this swift response, the number of people infected has since grown to more than 1350. This is partly because the virus has taken hold in marginalised communities that find it harder to comply with the lockdown rules, says Michael Baker at the University of Otago in New Zealand. “Many have drug and alcohol dependencies, mental health issues and precarious living situations,” he says.
Auckland’s situation reflects that of Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, which also quickly went from having no covid-19 to large outbreaks after the delta variant arrived.
On 4 October, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern conceded in a press conference that “a long period of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases” and said that the delta variant had felt like “a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake”.
Although Ardern didn’t explicitly declare the end of the elimination strategy, she appeared to signal this by outlining a three-stage plan to transition Auckland out of lockdown, even though the virus is still circulating.
The first stage, which comes into effect on 6 October, will allow 10 people from two households to meet outdoors. Nurseries for young children will reopen and outdoor recreation will be permitted.
The government will monitor the situation before triggering the second stage, which will allow 25 people to meet outdoors and shops and some public facilities to reopen. The third stage will allow social gatherings of up to 50 people and hospitality venues and schools to reopen.
“I think people were getting exasperated with the lockdown, so the government felt like they needed to act and do something different,” says Baker. “But the worry now is that we will start to see cases rise rapidly and the health system won’t cope, especially as we have quite a low number of ICU beds.”
Siouxsie Wiles at the University of Auckland agrees. “I think the government felt they had to do this to keep people onside, but I wish we could have kept the elimination strategy going until we had more people vaccinated and the vaccine was available to under 12s,” she says.
New Zealand’s vaccination roll-out had a slow start due to difficulties securing vaccines, but it has rapidly accelerated in recent weeks. About 79 per cent of people over the age of 12 have now had their first dose.
The nation’s elimination strategy has been tested by the delta variant, but it should still be considered a tremendous success considering that only 27 people in New Zealand have died of covid-19 to date, says Wiles. “We’ve had an amazing pandemic compared to other countries, but now we’re moving into a different phase and we have to get mentally and physically prepared for it.”
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