GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Was Delta spread inevitable in New Zealand?

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It has become somewhat of a casual mantra that the arrival and subsequent spread of the most recent, contagious and deadly of the Covid-19 variants, known as Delta, in New Zealand was inevitable.

If this was to be believed it meant that elimination strategy of zero tolerance to the virus was no longer fit for purpose and that the mitigation strategy (suppression) was more appropriate. This was, of course, linked to actively promoting full vaccination.

But the facts say something different. Certainly the Labour government was firmly committed to zero tolerance (not to be confused with zero cases or infections) when Delta’s arrival in Auckland from Sydney was first discovered in August. The country quickly and firmly went into a national Level 4 lockdown. Between 4 and 11 October it then abandoned zero tolerance in Auckland for mitigation.

This abandonment followed a poor judgement call to drop Auckland down to Level 3 too early, ignoring the warnings of modellers, and then panicking when the previously declining daily case numbers suddenly increased exponentially.

This, and the accompanying narrative constructed to rationalise it, is discussed further in my BusinessDesk published article (2 November) https://businessdesk.co.nz/article/opinion/the-politics-of-pandemic-traffic-lights.

The Government’s decision-making shifted from the focus on the health of people to politics. In doing so it forgot that the health of the population backed by science is good politics while shifting to political considerations is bad politics.

It meant that whereas, prior to its u-turn over zero tolerance (elimination), the Government was saying that Delta spread could be prevented, it is now saying that spread is inevitable. But the Government had options and exercised the wrong ones.

International border

The arrival of the Delta variant in Aotearoa is directly linked to the loosening of international border control through the trans-Tasman travel bubble in April. There were strong calls for the bubble from both sides of the Tasman Sea (and not confined to business interests). However, according to polls at the time, a small majority of New Zealanders disagreed with the border opening.

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The instincts of the slight majority proved to be correct although this is with the benefit of hindsight. When the travel bubble opened was too early to require full vaccination; both countries it had only commenced for vaccination for limited staged groups in February.

The bigger failure, however, was in June when there was a Delta scare in Wellington with an infectious Sydney visitor on a weekend visit. He had his first vaccine dose before coming to Wellington. At that point preferably the bubble should have been discontinued.

Failing discontinuation there should have been a requirement that only fully vaccinated Australians and New Zealanders could cross the Tasman. Had that been the case the Sydney case that brought Auckland and the rest of the country to a halt in August would not have arrived and Auckland would not be experiencing what it is now.

This was a significant error of judgement by government and the Ministry of Health. In June the greater contagiousness of this variant was well known in New Zealand. The arrival of Delta in New Zealand was not inevitable. But what about post-arrival spread?

Domestic border failings

Having unintentionally but avoidably allowed Delta into Auckland, until late September the Government’s response was excellent. But there were serious problems with domestic border control made worse when the rest of the country became safe to first lower to Level 3 and then to Level 2.

The main problem was the failure to require essential workers and other approved people crossing the border north and south of Auckland to provide evidence of full vaccination.

The two Auckland women who irresponsibly and unlawfully travelled through Northland thereby leading to its alert level being raised to Level 3 did so through forgery. But, had there been a requirement to be vaccinated in order to cross the border, they would not have got through.

Furthermore, the system was so poor that while the women had to show that they had been tested they didn’t have to show the result of the test. In both cases tests subsequently revealed infectiousness but it was too late.

The two Auckland truck drivers going to Northland and Palmerston North followed the rules. But both were unvaccinated. Had there been a vaccination requirement the fears and need for extra testing that subsequently arose would not have materialised. The Christchurch Delta cases were the result of a person lawfully returning from Auckland but unvaccinated and infectious.

Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins came up with a weak excuse for not requiring evidence of vaccination claiming that this would put too much pressure on border control. Nonsense. Those crossing the border in and out of Auckland are presently required to provide verification that they have taken been tested. Providing vaccination verification is not more onerous.

Further, if Hipkins was right (he’s not) then there was another means. Get the Director-General of Health to issue a health order requiring those otherwise approved for crossing the border to be fully vaccinated and advising that there would be legal consequences if they didn’t. Employers of those who need to cross the border could have been advised of significant legal penalties should they fail to ensure compliance.

And then there was Raglan which triggered the subsequent Waikato spread and elevation to Level 3 where it currently largely remains. This was a case of a person unlawfully driving into Auckland on a secondary road and then returning infected. Understandably police don’t have the capacity to cover all secondary roads.

But if concrete blocks used for roadworks (or containers) had been used then most likely the transgression would not have occurred and Waikato would not have gone into lockdown. Roadworks requiring concrete blocks are a common feature on New Zealand roads.

Contrasting Australian responses

Australia provides contrasting experiences of what determines whether Delta spread is inevitable or not. According to Australia’s Department of Health, as of 4 November, there were 20,975 active cases (755 community transmitted in the previous 24 hours).

All but 157 (20,818) of these active case were in two states (New South Wales and Victoria) comprising over 99% of the country’s total. Over the previous 24 hours there were 741 community transmission cases (98%) in these states. Proportionately the two states comprised around 58% of Australia’s population.

Both states didn’t have a zero tolerance approach (Victoria did initially but changed when overwhelmed by the combined effects of infections crossing the NSW border and compounded lockdown fatigue leading to non-compliance and spreader protests).

Of the remaining 157 active infections, 144 were in the Australian Capital Territory including Canberra (12 of which were in the previous 24 hours). This was hardly surprising given that ACT is surrounded by NSW.

Queensland, the third most populated state, had 12 active cases (2 community transmitted in the previous 24 hours). Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania have no active cases at all (Delta did arrive in the first two but not the third). This leaves Northern Territory with only one active case (none in the previous 24 hours).

In other words the states and territories representing around 42% of Australia’s population (including ACT) have been able through elimination (zero tolerance) to prevent Delta spread. But the two states that didn’t have a zero tolerance approach failed abysmally.

Further, as a consequence of their Delta spread, the federal government shifted vaccine supply towards NSW and Victoria at the expense of the rest of the country. Whereas both states have now achieved over 80% fully vaccinated, the overall Australian rate is only 66%.

To put it another way, the parts of Australia following zero toleration of Delta were disadvantaged by this relative lack of vaccine supply. Consequently they relied more on the public health elimination strategy beginning with fast and hard lockdowns of limited duration. As occasional cases were reported this response was reinforced by short sharp localised measures similar to the current situation in northern Northland) .

It worked; no spread.

U-turn on zero tolerance

When New Zealand had its first Delta case in August Jacinda Ardern’s government was clear. Zero tolerance was the right response. In justification it looked to the success of the rest of Australia rather than the failure of NSW and Victoria.

This worked while they continued with it. After the inevitable early increase, daily cases declined as low as single digit and it was contained within Auckland. It only faltered after an overconfident government ignored independent modelling and lowered the alert level to 3 too early.

This led to the inevitable resurgence of Delta causing panic within government and the poorly explained decision to reject zero tolerance in Auckland.

Spread due to wrong judgement calls

Ironically zero tolerance has succeeded in containing virus spread outside Auckland with the most serious province being Waikato; but still, with one exception to date, only single digit daily cases. But cases outside Auckland are primarily due to system failures in border control.

It was wrong calls in policy and operational decisions that allowed Delta to spread out of control in Auckland. This began with the trans-Tasman bubble when both countries had low vaccination rates and failing to respond effectively with the Wellington scare in June.

It was made worse by domestic border failures, the fatal decision to lower Auckland’s alert level too early (thereby prolonging the total lockout length generating greater public angst), and then the u-turn on zero tolerance in Auckland.

There was nothing inevitable about the Delta spread in Auckland. We only needed to look across the Tasman beyond the two disastrous eastern states to see this.

Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion

 

34 COMMENTS

  1. You are assuming the move to level 3 in Auckland was from over confidence.

    Judging by the tao dancing and obfuscation it’s far more likely deliberate- it’s certainly highly convenient for the government to have the virus get here (despite their “best” efforts) going in to summer (less severity), as it was becoming increasingly evident the country couldn’t be shut off from the world forever.

  2. Easy answer to the question. Yes it was inevitable. No amount of cossetting in fear was going to stop it.

    Problem for our resident expert’s is that they are mired in the should’ve, would’ve and could’ve mentality of fixing the inevitable.

    As any good competent leader will do is to look back only as reference of what to, or not, to do. A good leader will simply ask. Where are we now, where do we want to go, how are we going to get there.

    So we are now? Living with covid., Where do we want to go? Managed health care provision. How are we going to get there? Set a date when health care infrastructure is in place and let the populace breath.

    Simple really.

    Should’ve, would’ve and could’ve reflection on past endeavour failings is a mentality that has no future. Same as unenforceable lock downs are no longer part of the future.

  3. A hard one Ian, thanks for your analysis, yes, the failure was just across the ditch for all to see & if they had looked a bit further in USA,UK,India & Europe.
    The constant squeaky wheel megaphone of “business” (Barnett, MSM, NZ Herald/ZB, Magic talk,RNZ, gotcha moments) undermined their resolve to keep the lid on it & now we all pay the price of a selfish minority, it’s all down hill from here.

  4. Would actually be a lot more believable if the facts around how Delta got to Aoetearoa were accurate – it did not get in due to the bubble, it escaped from MIQ so was a systemic failure nothing to do with the bubble

    • The genome sequencing was clear. From a Sydney visitor. How it got from him into Auckland is not fully clear but that’s not the point.

  5. Excellent piece @ IP.
    Politically writing; when something doesn’t make common sense there’s always money involved.
    We have yet to come to terms with, much less deal with, the corruption within our political infrastructure.
    AO/NZ is an agrarian primary industry economy and most of our farmer’s money’s been diverted into the pockets of an urban elite who’ve designed laws and crafted politics to enable them to be able to continue to do so. It’s the oldest and most enduring of the many polite and self legitimised swindles that we must all bear the weight of.
    ( An example of what I’m trying to convey is perhaps best illustrated by our homeless people and the kids of the working classes living in dire poverty. In AO/NZ. While foreign owned banks can operate here with the full sanction of our politicians from all sides of our many sided House. Surely, that’s a clue as to who’s really in management of AO/NZ? It isn’t us, per se. It is Them.
    It is ‘They’ who place us at risk, likely because the Aston Martin’s run up a few K’s now, driving between Dunedin AP and the holiday mansion in Queenstown. )
    AO/NZ could have easily shut the borders but what’s even more infuriating is that, that would have put us on a war footing to supply our agrarian goods to a world already in dire straits, largely thanks to the global banking industry, read scammers.
    But that couldn’t happen, see? That’d show AO/NZ, and the world, that our farmers had been kept trampled down, nose to the grind stone by powerful politics and even more powerful, wealthy individuals who will not, nor ever, let the truth escape. Aye boys?
    I wrote, at the very outset of this awful thing, that we must close our borders hermetically. Let the virus show its insidious self elsewhere. Watch and learn while being safe.
    Our politicians were bullied into making disastrous decisions which will cost lives and create a hellish range of real problems for all of us and if many of you haven’t figured that out yet then your not fucking paying attention!

    • Tautoko Ian and Countryboy. Plan B business advocates crying freedom for profits pressured Govt into premature bubbles and relaxing levels. Lessons of the first lockdowns last year forgotten.

  6. This has all been said before. Vets have been dealing with this for over 20 years and made similar mistakes to what Jacinda and other leaders made. I would prefer to take the history and lessons of the virus from a vet than these so called Virologists and their astrological like, crystal ball theory’s and graphs.

  7. Inevitability is a lot like karma or the law of cause and effect.

    High density populations aka large cities have always been prone to health and social problems relating to too many people in too small a space.

    Spain and Italy with its wealthy tourists holidaying in China, multilevel dwellings, narrow lanes and geographical location affording warm weather and still winds meant that covid inevitability would occur.

    Adding to that was lazy hedonistic lifestyles punctuated by alcohol, caffeine and late nights, coupled with the multitude of modern lifestyle diseases that accompany wealth, leisure, failing and dysfunctional empires.

    Regarding border control measures I was watching El Jazeera about Kiribati and all the sandbagging going on to hold back the tide as the land continues to sink. Avoiding inevitability.

    As much a Sweden’s covid death rate is so much higher than neighbouring Nordic nations and makes one question their unregulated approach to the pandemic. In a similar vein one cant help but wonder if the increase in a countries national debt due to lockdown will create as much if not more community harm in the long run. Sure death is to be avoided at all costs, but long term suffering due to isolation and financial hardship will impact the genetic code and also create after effects long after the pandemic is gone.

    Inevitability is a loaded word, and mere humans trying avoid judgement and get around the tidal wave of karma or the scientific law of cause and effect strikes me a pleading in the dock when guilty.

    All the lockdowns and national efforts will have done is delay the inevitable, because they were insufficient in duration. Whether it is 3 months or 3 years, you usually cant hold back the tide or time.

    Things change and nothing lasts forever, species wax and wane as ‘acts of god’ like sinking lands continue to occur.

    Emerging from the bush after isolating for 20 years ones immune system would need to relearn viral threats, and if you are now too old to re-adapt to viruses, the inevitable will happen.

    Our best strategy was always to raise immunity. Where I live in Grey Lynn everyone is walking and running now, its like the footpaths are a miasma of ambulating families improving their chances at surviving. We are lucky to have walkable neighbourhoods, and the wise are now physically better off, due to lockdown.

    And people are quitting jobs to work less hours and from home. Another benefit from time to think, now far away from the previous life of a race to nowhere substantial or important.

    • Fascinating CJ, that the link quotes Peter Daszak, head of EcoHealth Alliance, the company that funded the Wuhan lab experiment in the first place, as revealed by ‘The Intercept’.

      “A key driver is the media, and the economics follow the hype. We need to use that hype to our advantage to get to the real issues. Investors will respond if they see profit at the end of process, Daszak stated.”

      The plot thickens.

  8. The Governments failure was in listening to the death “what about the economy” crowd, who are strangely quiet all of a sudden…

  9. With Auckland in level 4 they got the numbers down to an average of about 20 new cases per day. However, it looked this number was going to continue indefinitely and they had to, at some point, bite the bullet and start to lift the restrictions; and of course they were under a lot of political pressure to do so. Also the coming of vaccines presented a tantalizing opportunity to pursue a different strategy.

  10. I am at a bit of a loss when such eminent folks make these kinds of arguments.

    “The” spread of delta is another way of saying “New Zealand exposure to Delta”.

    Now, it might have been possible to stop “that” spread of Delta in New Zealand – the one that occurred. The Australian experience indicates that it might even have been possible to stop many of the possible histories including spreads of delta. Good to reflect on how it might have been done But the idea that we could have stopped all possible histories including spreads, including the ones in 2022 etc, is just silly. Even if under some perfect system we had maintained a Covid-free NZ, it would have left other problems – those of “opening up” and reintegration with the world. We can see these in microcosm with AKL/NZ issues. Anything but trivial, and of course it will take years to fully see the true results of the trade-offs anyway. It will take even longer if we continue to insist on focussing on one ‘metric’.

    We always ought to have gotten on with taking measures to deal with “the spread of Delta.” Gone hell for leather. We’ve been patchy on that, at the absolute outer limit of best.

    Looking forward is also important, as Gerrit says. We are where we are. So let’s not let unrealistic perspectives like Mr Powell’s hold us back from learning what we need to.

    All this is another illustration of why relying on medical perspectives beyond the the very first phase has been and is necessary, but not sufficient.

    • If the government had stuck with Level 4 a little longer, according to modellers the most likely outcome is that Auckland would be out of lockdown by now (ie, in either Level 2 or 1) based on how things were projected to trend and were trending.

      If Delta arrived today for the first time then our response would be much different than in August because the vaccination rate is so much higher. The response would have been similar to those Australian states that successful containeded the variant (ie, no lockdown or if so very localised and for a few days).

      There was nothing in my article to suggest that NZ should not reopen borders. High vaccination rates plus public health measures including requiring visitors to be vaccinated and vaccination certificates should be sufficient (without lockdowns).

      There is nothing about my article or my comments above that are “medical perspecitves”.

      • Did you REALLY expect that we keep Delta out forever. Why do writers always suggest other countries are better than us. I seriously think that people want to see the government response fail mainly because of misogynistic dialogue from all sectors of the media.

  11. Once NSW and Victoria decided that community transmission was going to be part of daily life, it seemed unlikely that NZ could sustain the elimination strategy. As the rest of the world lives with Covid, Delta forced the same reality on Australia and then NZ. The two largest states of Australia will have to reintegrate with the rest of Australia, who can only prepare for Covid to enter their states as restrictions lift.

    Even if elimination had worked in Auckland this time round, NZ’s former tran-tasman bubble partner would no longer be Covid-free. An unvaccinated NZ did have reservations about opening up travel with Australia, but now that vaccinations are here, people are dreaming of flying further than Australia and into the world where case and death rates are still high. Australia was always going to be the first major nation we would open up to, how long could we pursue elimination if Australia weren’t? If we were witnessing an uncomfortable amount of death in Australia people may give pause, but the feeling is now that it is time to begin opening up again. The debate will be over how fast and how wide.

    • Elimination was working while Auckland is in Level 3; it is being applied and is working in the rest of the country including the containment in Northland, Waikato, Marlborough and Canterbury; and has worked well in Australia outside NSW and Victoria.

      What is clear is that Level 3 is insufficient to contain a much more contagious variant when it already has had wide circulation has it had in Auckland in mid-August.

  12. Well, it’s here now. Lots of what ifs and buts are all too late.

    I note your disappointment in failing to keep it in Auckland if only all roads were blocked and far more robust requirements were in place this leave Auckland. The trouble with that argument is Auckland is NOT a separate country, it’s part of New Zealand. There should be NO border at all! And therefore that logic that says Aucklanders remain locked up indefinitely is delusional.

    And the overwhelming reason, the inevitable reason it remained circulating in Auckland under level 4 was this was easily one lockdown too many. While the rest of New Zealand unrealistically existed without risk of Covid by making Auckland always wear the risk of being the border and the MIQ, it is was Auckland that always had to take the hit for the rest of the country. And we have! Repeatedly!

    This is what you get when a highly infectious disease with poor planning and oversight combine. I cannot help but think that it was our Wellington based MP’s likes Hipkins and Robertson were more than happy for Auckland to do the dirty work for the rest of the country and be blamed if their poor management failed.

    Get over it, it’s here to stay! And it’s coming your way.

  13. NZ government should have stuck to their guns and never opened the border with OZ.

    NZ is constantly being lobbied by the immigration brigade to get things back to their Ponzi.

    NZ has perfected crappy conditions, we now have people coming into NZ, paying for their own job and paying back their wages to their employers or paying $3 p/h! And the woke remedy is to make it even easier by more NZ residency under these conditions and being able to change your job easily and thus pretend for another 10 years that it will work. Brilliant! Don’t forget that for one visa – there are ways for entire families to come too, we can have Delta varieties into NZ and onto our health system, before lunch time if the right wingers and woke get their way!

    Certainly worked for the student visas to allow the students to keep living in NZ for years after they finish their degrees! NZ is full of amazing skills, NOT!! Amazing houses, NOT. Amazing workforce, NOT. Full housing with all the new skills. NOT! Full of health care workers, NOT!

    Keep believing the paid media and lobbyists on what is good for NZ.

    Instead we should look at real statistics and what is really going on in NZ!
    When they do open the border to stop our health system being overrun with demand, we need to start to look at what is going wrong. This is from https://croakingcassandra.com/2021/06/18/immigration-policy-for-new-zealand-post-covid/

    “I would favour two main changes. First, I would reverse the decision a few years ago to allow students to work while here. If you are here to study, study, don’t compete at the low end of the labour market. And I would get governments out of approved lists, or even salary thresholds, and replace it all with a model in which any employer could hire a person on a temporary work visa but that visa would be

    Subject to a fee, payable to the government (perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income, whichever is greater). That sets a clear and predictable test for whether non-New Zealand recruits are really required, and a genuine incentive on employers to search for and develop New Zealanders (especially for less well-paid positions).
    Subject to a term limit (no individual could be here on one of these visas for more than three years, without at least a one year return home)”

    Not sure if he analysed how NZ’s immigration policy has affected health care, but he should and also what will happen if they continue to encourage more and more of the highest needs groups into NZ, aka groups having children who are in the first 3 years of life or pensioners in last 3 years of life.

    He has analysed housing and this was his finding.
    Immigration policy: 106 per cent of net new housing demand
    https://croakingcassandra.com/2015/06/23/immigration-policy-106-per-cent-of-net-new-housing-demand/

  14. Noun 1. terrorism – the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimindation or coercion or instilling fear

  15. 1.If pills can “cure” COVID, then there’s no need for vaccine (that manifestly can’t). 2. If there’s 100% effective cure, then the vaccine EUA immediately falls away. 3. Given 1 and 2, how is any continued vaccine roll-out ethical?

  16. Fundamentally I disagree with Ian that the move to level 3 was the wrong call. I’ve commented before that Ian is looking back with rose tinted glasses and pining for the elimination success we used to have. We need to face the reality. We tried eliminating it with the lockdown. By the 4 week mark people were getting sick of it, and rule breaking was increasing. We would have needed a lot longer in level 4 to snuff it out – if that was even possible – and politically and socially that would have become unsustainable. The move to level 3 was a rational one, accepting that people wouldn’t tolerate longer in level 4, and still with major constraints to stem the virus spread.

    The virus arriving here and becoming widespread was indeed inevitable, as even if we were virus free so far, at some point we’d have to open and then the virus would arrive. South Australia is currently virus free. They could stay that way for as long as they like, but they’re opening up with a ‘Freedom Day’ on 23rd November and will inevitably get the virus. Why? Because unless you stay locked away forever.

    I would not describe virus case growth in Auckland as ‘exponential’ as Ian does. It’s trending up for sure, but vaccination helped curb the growth.

    • Sorry, with regards South Australia opening up, the term ‘Freedom Day’ could be confusing because we’re all used to it in the context of community restrictions being relaxed etc. In this case I am referring to lifting border restrictions and letting in tourists and returning Australians.

      • It is important when critiquing an article to have a good empirical foundation which unfortunately is lacking in Brad’s rather cliche response.

        Zero tolerance (the core of elimination rather than simply lockdowns) is not the same as zero cases. The majority of Australian states followed elimination. They (except for Tasmania) had occasional delta cases but their response was zero tolerance through short sharp very localised actions. In these states and territories delta is either eliminated or containable.

        Had the government not undertaken a u-turn and instead followed the advice of the modellers it was using then the most likely outcome is that Auckland would have continued for another 2-3 weeks maximum followed by a much shorter period in Level 3. By now, if the modellers were correct (and their track record has been pretty good), Auckland would have been out of Level 3 and instead in either Level 2 or 1.

        This isn’t about not opening borders early next year as scheduled. If delta was to arrive in NZ for the first time today then the response would not be the same as it was in August because of the difference our much higher vaccination rates make. The response would most likely be similar to that of Australia outside NSW and Victoria and at worse something similar for northern Auckland.

        Exponential is when something increases quickly by large amounts. If the increase of the 3 day daily delta case average from 13 on 28 September to 125 on 30 October isn’t exponential then I’m not sure what is. The same can be seen for unlinked (mysterious) cases increasing from between 5 to 15 in September to 358 on 20 October. This information was in my linked ‘BusinessDesk’ article.

  17. it’s funny when rightards get all aerated about labour being ‘leftist’ they take better care of the bourgeoise than corprate natz ever will…..
    really all rightwingers should vote labour it’s in their ‘small to medium capitalist’ intrests but they’re scared of ‘the pink hair people’

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