Covid 19 coronavirus: NZ still exposed to mutant strain, despite tightened border

New Zealand still remains exposed to the new, more contagious strain of Covid-19 despite the Government yesterday bolstering its border and pre-departure defences.

The number of daily Covid-19 tracer app scans has dropped significantly over summer and new data has highlighted a number of contact tracing shortcomings after previous incursions.

And, according to a briefing Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins received from officials, managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities would be unable to handle a prolonged community outbreak.

“The chances of a community outbreak have never been greater,” Act leader David Seymour said yesterday. “This is an unacceptably dangerous situation.”

Although Hipkins acknowledges the significantly reduced Covid-19 tracer app usage is “concerning” he remains confident the Government’s new border and pre-departure restrictions will help keep Covid-19 out of the community.

“You can never say never, but we are always looking at how we can strengthen our overall response.”

The app, he said, was just one “tool” the Government was using to keep the virus at bay.

Yesterday, he announced a number of new tools which aim to bolster New Zealand’s Covid-19 defences.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was given the power to require travellers from every country in the world to produce a negative Covid-19 test before they leave for New Zealand.

Hipkins said he expected Bloomfield to officially exercise this power within the next few weeks.

The only exceptions are Australia, Antarctica and some Pacific Island nations.

Anyone who fails to produce evidence of a negative result will be fined up to $1000.

Before the new orders were announced, the only two countries where travellers were required to produce negative tests before heading to New Zealand were the UK and the US.

But with the new restrictions comes new risks, such as the ability of a traveller to obtain a fake Covid-19 negative result.

It’s for that very reason Hipkins said the Government has been making its way through this policy “very carefully”.

“We needed to make sure the regime we put in place was robust, verifiable and trustworthy.”

Hipkins said publicly available Covid-19 testing is becoming more widely available around the world, as more countries require pre-departure testing.

And Government would only accept a negative result which has been certified by an official lab, he said.

The blanket pre-departure restrictions are in addition to new domestic testing rules, also unveiled by Hipkins yesterday.

From January 18, anyone coming to New Zealand will be required to undergo day 0/1 testing when entering the country, as well as the routine day 3 and 12 tests.

Again, the only exceptions are Australia, Antarctica and some Pacific Island nations.

But there are still concerns that, if the virus made its way back into the community, the new strain would play havoc on New Zealand.

A major reason for this is around contact tracing. Over the summer months, the usage of the Covid-19 tracer app has nose-dived from a high of 2.5 million QR code scans a day in August to only 500,000 this month.

Canterbury University mathematician and Te Punaha Matatini modeller Professor Michael Plank said it was clear there had been a big drop-off in the number of people scanning.

“This means our contact tracers will have less information to go on when we get our next community case and makes a lockdown more likely.”

And, according to data from the Ministry of Health, there were issues last year when it comes to contact tracing in the community.

That data showed contact-tracing efforts for at least two of the eight border incursions since the end of July were well below the expected standard.

The gold standard is to reach 80 per cent of case contacts within 48 hours of a positive case being returned, but only 60 per cent in the August cluster were reached in that timeframe and only 51 per cent in the Christchurch cluster.

But Hipkins remains confident that the Government’s contact tracing regime is up-to-scratch, should there be another community outbreak.

“The system is constantly improving but the reality is we were working our way through a variety of simulated exercises to test the system – to make sure it was where we needed it to be – and we ended up with a real-life simulation instead,” he said, referencing Auckland’s August outbreak.

Looking overseas, Hipkins called the new more contagious strain of Covid-19, which is ravaging the UK, an “enhanced risk” to New Zealand – echoing the sentiment of epidemiologist Michael Baker, who has voiced similar concerns.

“The risk internationally has increased over the last couple of months,” Hipkins said.

Meanwhile, National is continuing to criticise the Government for “falling behind the rest of the world” when it comes to the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination.

Some countries have already begun administering vaccinations, but New Zealand’s vaccine timetable does not begin until the end of March.

Hipkins said some of those countries are administering the vaccine before it’s been fully approved because they are “in a state of emergency”.

“New Zealand is not in that position – we are running a full approvals process which will be in place by the time the vaccines arrive.”

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