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Wednesday, April 08, 2020

How New Zealand is beating the virus

There is a very interesting article in the Independent about what is happening in New Zealand which in turn, raises a number of questions as to whether the UK response to COVID-19 is adequate or not.

The paper says that the country's elimination approach has turned the tide with the number of new cases falling for two consecutive days, despite a huge increase in testing, with 54 confirmed or probable cases reported on Tuesday. That means the number of people who have recovered, 65, exceeds the number of daily infections:

How has New Zealand, a country I still call home after 20 years abroad, controlled its outbreak so quickly?

When I arrived here a month ago, travelling from the epicentre of China via the hotspot of South Korea, I was shocked that officials did not take my temperature at the airport. I was told simply to self-isolate for 14 days (I did).

But with the coronavirus tearing through Italy and spreading in the United States, this heavily tourism-reliant country - it gets about four million international visitors a year, almost as many as its total population - did the previously unthinkable: it shut its borders to foreigners on 19 March.

Two days later, Ms Ardern delivered a televised address from her office - the first time since 1982 that an Oval Office-style speech had been given - announcing a coronavirus response alert plan involving four stages, with full lockdown being Level 4.

A group of influential leaders got on the phone with her the following day to urge moving to Level 4.

“We were hugely worried about what was happening in Italy and Spain,” said one of them, Stephen Tindall, founder of the Warehouse, New Zealand's largest retailer.

“If we didn't shut down quickly enough, the pain was going to go on for a very long time,” he said in a phone interview. “It's inevitable that we will have to shut down anyway, so we would rather it be sharp and short.”

On the Monday, 23 March, Ms Ardern delivered another statement and gave the country 48 hours to prepare for a Level 4 lockdown. “We currently have 102 cases,” she said. “But so did Italy once.”

From that Wednesday night, everyone had to stay at home for four weeks unless they worked in an essential job such as health care, or were going to the supermarket or exercising near their home.

A few hours before midnight, my phone sounded a siren as it delivered a text alert: “Act as if you have Covid-19. This will save lives,” it said. “Let's all do our bit to unite against Covid-19.”

From the earliest stages, Ms Ardern and her team have spoken in simple language: Stay home. Don't have contact without anyone outside your household “bubble”. Be kind. We're all in this together.

She's usually done this from the podium of news conferences where she has discussed everything from the price of cauliflowers to wage subsidies. But she also regularly gives updates and answers questions on Facebook, including one done while sitting at home - possibly on her bed - in a sweatshirt.

The paper adds that there has been a sense of collective purpose with the police phone line for non-emergencies being overwhelmed with people calling to “dob in” others they think are breaching the rules.

And it is having an effect, with the daily number of new cases peaking at 89 on 2 April, before ticking down to 67 on Monday and 54 on Tuesday. The vast majority of cases can be linked to international travel, making contact tracing relatively easy, and many are consolidated into identifiable clusters.

Clear leadership, good communication, cross-party cooperation, clear guidance properly enforced and a collective will to eliminate the virus have all contributed to this outcome, so much so that the country is rapidly reaching the point where, with strict border control, restrictions could be gradually relaxed and life inside New Zealand could return to almost normal.

A salutary lesson for the UK.
To put this in context, the population of New Zealand is slightly more than that of Wales. The case total for Wales is 3,790.
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