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The latest Delta outbreak has forced a rethink about bold plans recently announced to reopen to the world, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins says.
Meanwhile rising case numbers across the Tasman and abandonment of any elimination policy at a state level means any reopening of the travel bubble won’t be happening anywhere in the “near future”.
Wednesday delivered positive news for the Auckland-centered outbreak with just 15 new community cases there, down from 20 the day before.
It brought the outbreak total to 855 cases – 17 in Wellington and the rest in Auckland.
Unlinked cases and those infected in the community, as opposed to from known contacts, continued at low levels – all signs current level 4 settings in Auckland were working.
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said, however, “the most important number” was the 13,230 tests processed, with 8566 in Auckland – a significant increase on previous days, and key to ruling out any pockets of undetected community spread.
Hipkins meanwhile said the outbreak had forced a “rethink” of plans announced at the start of August to start reopening the borders, starting with a trial this year of home isolation or shorter MIQ stays for selected travellers.
That was supposed to be followed by the phased resumption of quarantine-free travel from the first quarter of 2022.
Resources and staff were now devoted to the current outbreak, which meant plans for the trial had been pushed back but were still intended to take place by the end of the year, Hipkins said.
The wider reopening was still “a while away”, Hipkins said, but given recent developments in Australia people should “not hold their breath” about travelling quarantine-free there anywhere in the “near future”.
It followed comments in the House on Tuesday evening where Hipkins said Delta had changed their thinking, particularly around the risk profiles they were to apply to countries.
“In some of the risk protection measures that we’ve had in place previously, like pre-departure testing potentially three days before travel, in a Delta environment where someone can be picking it up and being infectious within 24 hours—some of those things actually do need to be looked at again.
“I think we will have to look again at some of that thinking around particularly the country-risk profiling, because I think Delta has changed the game.”
Bloomfield said they had been keeping a close eye on how countries with high vaccination rates that had reopened had been faring.
The United Kingdom had been “instructive” in that with high vaccination coverage they were still seeing high numbers of cases but comparatively far fewer deaths compared to last winter. Similarly, Singapore, which has vaccination coverage, over 80 per cent, was experiencing similar results.
Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said inevitably plans to reopen the borders would have to be pushed back due to staffing and resources.
“I think this outbreak has strained the system to the maximum.
“It has also made it more real for everyone in terms of the Delta risk. As long as people are coming in who could be infected with this virus there is the ability for it to seep through tiny cracks.”
What could be defined as low-risk, meaning fully vaccinated people could travel there quarantine-free, would also need to be very closely looked at.
With Australia essentially ruling out any form of elimination strategy, Baker said that would not be a likely option in the medium term, unless arrangements could be made with states including Tasmania and Western Australia that remained committed to keeping out the virus.
Further abroad New Zealand could look to places like Taiwan, and even mainland China and Hong Kong, which were still committed to elimination, he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, speaking before he told the Parliamentary Health Select Committee, Covid modeller Rodney Jones called on the Government to boost resources for South Auckland, saying despite “extraordinary” work from the community it could remain the “ongoing frontline in the battle against Covid”.
“We need to support them in these vital steps to restore elimination. What we need to take away from this experience is that delta thrives on inequality.”
Te Pūnaha Matatini modeller Professor Shaun Hendy also called for more widespread use of rapid testing technology.
He also spoke to recent modelling from himself and his colleagues that showed level 4 restrictions in Auckland were “working about as well as level 4 last year”, and were on track to eliminate the outbreak in the coming weeks “provided we stay at level 4”.
They were still estimating the outbreak to reach about 1000 case numbers in total.
Also on Wednesday Hipkins revealed the probe into how the deadly Delta strain of Covid-19 got into the community from the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility remained a mystery.
Bloomfield also rejected suggestions Middlemore staff had made a serious error in how they handled the treatment of a patient at the hospital who later tested positive to Covid.
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