Covid 19 coronavirus: Did complacency among Kiwis rub off on Jacinda Ardern and the Government?

OPINION:

Less than a third of people who might have shared the same space with the Delta-infected Sydney tourist had used the Covid Tracer app, while QR scanning was down by 80 per cent compared to its peak last September.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used these figures yesterday to illustrate how complacent we had become, but had the Government become just as complacent before the latest Wellington scare?

The measures she signalled yesterday to strengthen public health measures have been holes in our defences for a while, and the justification for them – the threat of the highly infectious Delta variant and the risk posed by the transtasman bubble – are far from new.

The first measure, looking into mandatory QR scanning in bars and restaurants, has been called for since January, not only from public health experts including Professor Michael Baker, but also politicians including Act leader David Seymour.

Baker and his colleagues have been calling for the second measure – wider use of masks – for over a year to reflect how common aerosol transmission is.

And the third measure – requiring all workers at the border to be fully vaccinated or redeployed away from the frontline – is in response to a hole we’ve known about for at least eight weeks: the thousands of unvaccinated border workers still working at our ports and airports.

(The risk of this hole was mitigated by moving to a risk-based approach for overseas arrivals, though Baker and co had also been calling for this for months.)

It’s been 11 weeks since Ardern signalled the plan to have a vaccinated safety barrier at the border, but she didn’t mention anything about the gap in the barrier, nor has the Government said anything about plugging the gap until yesterday.

“Practical, logistical considerations,” was Minister Chris Hipkins’ response when asked why the Government hadn’t looked into it earlier.

This and the other reasons given for not looking at these measures earlier – including compliance costs on businesses and enforcement issues – are no less of a hurdle now than they were previously.

And regardless of enforceability, we’ve already seen with mask use on public transport that making something mandatory increases up-take far more than mere encouragement.

If these measures had been in place before the Delta-infected Sydney tourist spent a weekend in Wellington, we would have been better equipped to deal with any outbreak.

More people would have scanned in to locations of interest, and mask use in indoor settings at level 2 would have further reduced any potential Delta outbreak.

Wellington appears to have dodged a disaster with the Sydney tourist who so far has only infected his partner, despite 2600-odd contacts during their weekend in Wellington.

If he had been a super-spreader, moving to level 4 may have been needed – even if only a few cases had emerged.

The Delta variant is roughly twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus, can be transmitted in fleeting interactions between strangers, and leads to 1.85 more hospitalisations.

The level 3 lockdown in August last year, according to modeller Professor Michael Plank, reduced the R value to 0.6 to 0.7, meaning one person on average infected fewer than one other person, enabling the chains of transmission to eventually be extinguished.

But if it had been the Delta variant, the R value would have been twice as big, and the outbreak would have continued to balloon without moving to a stronger lockdown.

A look at the rapid spread of Delta cases in India, Russia, and Indonesia – and the threat of such a spread in Australia – is also a reminder of how vulnerable our unvaccinated population is.

Only 7.5 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, while 12.5 per cent have had one jab – numbers that Cabinet will keep in mind as it meets today to consider unpausing the transtasman bubble and lifting level 2 in Wellington.

Where to draw those lines is, as always, a difficult judgement call for the Government that includes more than simply health considerations.

But redrawing those lines to reflect the risks posed by the Delta variant and a mostly unvaccinated population would signal an appropriately cautious approach.

And a Government that’s not in danger of becoming complacent.

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