GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – A very scary graph: Comparing Delta variant in New Zealand and New South Wales


According to Wikipedia data science is an inter-disciplinary field that uses scientific methods, processes, algorithms and systems to extract knowledge and insights from noisy, structured and unstructured data, and apply knowledge and actionable insights from data across a broad range of application domains.

This is what Auckland based Aaron Schiff does as a freelance data scientist. But he is more than this; he is also an economist. One thing data scientists and economists share is a love of graphs.

Schiff is obviously no exception to this rule as evidenced by a fascinating tweet that he posted on 2 November:

He was using graphs to make contrasting comparisons with the Delta variant of Covid-19 in Australia’s most populous state New South Wales and New Zealand.

SchiffHis first graph compared both the state and country with the start of the Delta outbreak. There is no doubt New Zealand’s pandemic response looks impressive as the graph illustrates.

It should be noted that the starting point (Delta arrival) for New South Wales was May whereas in New Zealand it was August.

Now look at the second graph which compares New South Wales with New Zealand when the latter government lowered the Auckland alert level to 3 on 22 September.

There is not much that could be scarier than this graph with the obvious implications for the consequential implications for hospitalisations and mortalities experienced by New South Wales. Although not the same, Level 3 in New Zealand has some similarity with the unevenly applied lockdown in New South Wales.

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If New Zealand were to continue to follow the disastrous New South Wales experience as outlined in the graph then the otherwise avoidable intense pressure on our already heavily under-staffed public hospitals and the avoidable deaths would be devastating. Our health system would be in real trouble.

But there are at least two mitigating factors. First, New Zealand’s vaccination rate in September was much higher than the rate in New South Wales in May. The later arrival of delta to New Zealand was a definite advantage for us.

New South Wales has just achieved 90% full vaccination of those eligible. But an important qualification is that at the same point there were 220 new infections and four deaths in the state.

The second mitigating factor is that, although daily infections are escalating upwards and hospitalisations increasing in Auckland, the elimination strategy still applying in the rest of the country has been effective in containing the Delta variant.

It should not therefore be assumed that the graph will continue to show New Zealand matching New South Wales. This was something that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern committed to preventing in August and for much of September.

But, at the same time, it can’t be ruled out. The Government’s pandemic response was outstanding from March 2020. But this is no longer the case. Since its poor overconfident judgement to lower Auckland’s alert level (disregarding the advice of its modellers) the Government’s response has been stumbling.

Should the pattern indicated in the scary graph continue then government stumbling will be a significant contributor.

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


  1. More doom, gloom and despondence. Surely the fact that the NSW curve peakes and then drops down is a positive sign?

    Have said this before; covid modellers model without the need to consider other implications. Not for them the practical nuances that living a life brings. Lock downs work for the theoretical model. They don’t work for people living life (where trivial matters such as not being able to get a haircut for 3 months takes on major worry). Nor do the theoretical models have to think about political implications.

    Ardern has to walk a tight rope, the government has to govern so as to remain on the treasury benches. After 85 days of lock down, the government is on very thin ice to regain the votes of 1.3M Aucklander’s. The mood is grim, so grim that even Ardern barely ventured to meet the people. Flying in under cover and guided to the most photogenic and “save”locations.

    Am surprised you don’t comment on the bell curve effect shown in the NSW graph. It peaks and then gets better. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. …”Should the pattern indicated in the scary graph continue then government stumbling will be a significant contributor”…

    Yeah. Sort off, but I think the parabolic curve will be much lower, more gentler. Demographics and population densities aside as well as the national spread of populations,- and compared to the tardiness of the Australian experience, – along with our more compliant attitudes,…may stand us in better stead.

    That is not to say that we will not go under ‘heavy weather’ with the lifting of elimination,…as we will. But I do not think we can compare Australia with New Zealand on several scores. There are several differences which cannot be simply equated to a graph…we are not Italy, we are not Brazil, we are not India. And hopefully, these help to produce mitigating factors in the gradient.

    Then again, I could be quite wrong. I hope not.

  3. Firstly a quote from Niels Bohr: “Making predictions is difficult…especially about the future” 😉

    Secondly, it assumes the uptick in cases was due to the lowering of the lockdown level. But correlation isn’t the same as causation: In south Auckland the level 4 rules were already being widely ignored by our feral underclass before the rule change, so I suspect the government simply retreated in the face of defeat.

    Lastly if we do indeed trace the same path as NSW (unlikely because of our vaccination rate) then we’ll be OK because NSW experienced a total of 605 deaths of people *with* Covid 19 in a population of 8.2 million most of which were in old age homes, hospices, hospitals and dementia care facilities. With the vast majority of deaths being of people in their 80’s and 90’s. They’re through it now and living their normal lives. What you definitely *wouldn’t* want to experience is that of Victorians who suffered an autocratic Labor government using thug tactics to oppress them.

    • Not just the feral underclass. Even respected citizens noticed the folly and continuance of unenforceable lock down rules. Aided by bungling bureaucrats in uneven border crossing exemption grants. People simply questioned why the feral underclass gets free pardons whilst loyal upright citizens get the big NO.

      So the upright simply turned feral.

      PS I hope you are not referring to all in South Auckland as “ferals underclass” people. People in glass houses should not throw stones. Lock down rules were widely flaunted Auckland wide. Are all Aucklander’s “feral underclass”?

      • @ gerrit…
        Are you another common or garden confederate trying to derail the narrative?
        Who do you mean when you write ‘feral underclass’?
        I assume you mean the riche with more than enough cock powered greed inclinations to fuck anyone on any deal, at any time, any where? Because that’s what this is all about, you can’t argue that.
        Poor people have no power. That’s obvious or I wouldn’t be here writing this. I’d otherwise be in my garden with my dog and my flies and sundry wee beasties and not having to worry about fuckers like you spouting horse shit. No disrespect to actual horse shit.
        The reason why we must now worry about getting sick then dying, again, is because the powerful urban riche can pull the strings the poor can only afford to hang themselves from. It should be deeply concerning to everyone who isn’t a property millionaire or a useless fucking economist living in Remuera that the disease that has no means to be reasoned with is off again. Let loose by a Peoples Party who’ve thrown the People overboard in favour of a six figure salary plus generous entitlements.
        That’s the fucking problem!
        Close the borders! Crush the foreign owned banksters! De flea our farmers from the parasitic infestations of a corrupt AO/NZ bureaucracy syphoning off farmer money into privateer pocketsesssss. Aye boys?
        We have a guy above who knows what he’s writing about and half wits like you who try to poke holes in his opinions while knowing nothing about what he’s attempting to convey. That, just makes you look sketchy man.
        I don’t think you’re half witted at all. But I do think you have agendas. You, and others here. Your owners are freaking out that this disease will unpick the stitches of a multi generational swindle involving farmer earned money being syphoned off.
        ( Quick!? Check out Geotech’s website for any indication of a seismic bump caused by mass eye rolling!? )

        • Sorry, but you lost me in your ramble. If you care to scroll up the page to Andrews comment where he blamed the spread of Delta to the great unwashed in South Auckland.

          “In south Auckland the level 4 rules were already being widely ignored by our feral underclass before the rule change, so I suspect the government simply retreated in the face of defeat.”

          As a poor, proud and diverse South Aucklander, being refered to as a “feral underclass” member needs defending. If that makes me look sketchy in your eyes, you have the problem not me.

          Is everything questionable or are there some topics that are “out of bounds”?

          Or are you good at pigeon holling any comment you dont like as coming from Remuera eletes?

  4. Interesting graphs Ian. The virus spread has been a real opportunity for ‘modellers’ and the data will provide Universities with endless future research opportunities.
    Obviously once the virus was amongst groups who had no intention of following any rules any hope of elimination was lost. The Government has had to basically play-for-time whilst getting vax rates up. Business sector frustration at being locked-down whilst mass protesting is happening is palpable. Given that outside AKL control is still achievable the reintegration of AKL into the rest of the country is a major problem.

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