Michael Baker: Why government is right to yo-yo between alert levels

The Prime Minister has confirmed the country’s general Covid-19 vaccination roll-out will start in South Auckland and epidemiologist Michael Baker says he sees merit in the idea.

It was announced at Jacinda Ardern’s first media conference since returning Auckland to Covid-19 alert level 3 and the rest of the country to level 2 at 6am Sunday.

Baker said he sees merit in vaccinating the South Auckland community against Covid-19 after border workers have their turn.

The area has been prone to community cases due to the high proportion of airport workers living there.

Dr Baker said New Zealand could take the measure because it had been able to focus on eliminating transmission rather than preventing widespread deaths like in other countries.

“We could think about other priorities in Auckland as partly defending the country from transmission so that changes the priorities a bit, I mean of course we very quickly want to vaccinate people based on their risk of having a poor outcome and that’s based on age, ethnicity and underlying conditions.”

The government has confirmed genomic sequencing shows the latest community case of Covid-19 in Auckland is linked to the South Auckland cluster.

However this was not known last night and Dr Baker said that was one reason it was necessary for Auckland to move to alert level 3.

“I think the bigger factor now is they’ve had several days in the community, going to high risk locations and potentially infecting other people.”

The case has now been confirmed as the more infectious UK variant.

“The good thing about the alert levels and particularly what you could call the circuit breaker levels is that they do put really the whole population into home quarantine.”

But Dr Baker said it is of course very disruptive hitting Aucklanders and small businesses.

The most recent South Auckland Covid outbreak has really tested the system, he said.

“Because when you have a school with 1500 students plus, a large number of staff, I think even the way you classify contacts has been put under strain because a simple split between close contacts and casual contacts doesn’t work so well in a school setting – hence the casual plus category.

“If you think about the school environment obviously people go through many classrooms each day where they’re indoors with other people and they may not always be aware of who they’re sitting next to, plus other casual meetings, plus even potentially shared public transport to get there.”

Baker said the system has worked well except for the potentially one or two percent of students who were not quickly identified and tested, and it was unfortunate that one of them happened to include an infected household.

He said New Zealand is getting better at using the contact tracing system and short sharp lockdowns to deal with the virus.

“I mean that’s really been the distinguishing feature of New Zealand’s successful management of the pandemic. We’ve actually had less time under lockdown than virtually every country in the OECD now – so it is a winning formula.”

But Dr Baker said that does mean that sometimes New Zealand will get it wrong.

He would like to see indoor mask use for some time after moving from level 3 down to level 2 or lower which would signal to people that it is necessary to be very cautious for some time after there has been community transmission of the virus.

This is an official government Covid-19 announcement.

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