Richard Prebble: New Zealand dangerously exposed to Covid outbreak

OPINION:

The virulent British Covid strain could be in New Zealand. It could have been at mass spreader events. There is so little testing the authorities would not know. If Covid gets into New Zealand our only defence is lockdown.

Scientists say the months before a vaccine can be rolled out are very dangerous. The Government’s only strategy is to rely on one-size-fits-all border quarantine.

We must do better. Testing travellers before they fly is a good start. I and others made that suggestion six months ago. There are more practical solutions to increase our protection.

One-size-fits-all quarantine is very expensive and wasteful. In the 10 months of quarantining travellers not one traveller whose flight originated in the Islands, Australia or Taiwan has tested positive for Covid.

Taiwan classifies visitors by risk. Travellers from very low-risk countries who can provide proof of suitable accommodation can self-quarantine. It would free up needed quarantine places.

We need an even stricter quarantine for travellers from countries with the more infectious Covid strains. Such travellers should be in separate managed isolation.

Any system run by humans is going to fail. Border quarantine has and will be breached. The real defence against a community Covid outbreak is the ability to test, track and trace. Our testing and tracking is woeful.

40 per cent of people with Covid show no symptoms but can still spread the infection. Rapid detection requires mass random testing. Relying on slow lab tests is not working. On 15th January there were just 2277 in-country tests. Scientists say this is half the minimum number of tests needed to detect Covid before it spreads. The more infectious strains require even more testing.

There are cheap, rapid, do-it-yourself Covid tests. In September the government review of testing by Sir Brian Roche and Heather Simpson recommended: “All efforts should be made to introduce saliva testing as soon as possible”.

The Government must immediately purchase enough DIY kits to lift the daily testing rate to the level needed to detect Covid in the community. If Covid is detected we need enough kits to rapidly test whole cities.

The take-up and use of the government Covid app is so low it is useless. Taking 15th January again there were only 24,677 manual entries, 309,340 scans and 555,824 Bluetooth contacts. Many are multiple scans by the same person. Just 5 per cent of us are scanning. The closer we are to everyone scanning the more effective the app will be.

The testing report found “the Ministry of Health is not well informed on the details of how the economy or the social sector operates”. Nothing has changed.

Exhorting on television to scan is not working. Repeating an action and expecting a different result is madness.

The Electoral Commission is able to get over 90 per cent of us to enrol. Why not use their expertise? The commission could have stalls at malls, at mass events; wherever there are people it would promote and demonstrate app use.

Dairies know their customers. Pay dairies to enrol people to download the app and the Bluetooth feature.

Despite having set up a private-sector advisory committee the Government has ignored its advice.

Business would say “create incentives to download and use the app”. It would be easy to tweak the app so users could be eligible for daily prizes. The more scans the more chances. Consult Lotto to find out how big the prizes need to be so most people will scan as often as they can. One day of the Auckland lockdown is estimated to have cost $75 million in economic activity. Whatever the prizes have to be, it is worth it.

In November taxpayers funded a Bluetooth Covid card trial in Rotorua. What was the result? Tech experts say that a Bluetooth Covid card is feasible. It is a low-cost option for those without smartphones.

We know who have no smartphones. They are the people who are signing in with their names and addresses. Pay students to contact those who are manually signing to offer them Bluetooth Covid cards.

If Labour ministers applied the same vigour to promoting the Covid app as they do to ensuring their supporters are on the electoral roll we could have a very effective track and trace system.

While the vaccine news is encouraging it will be many months before New Zealanders have herd immunity. The virus is demonstrating it can mutate perhaps to a vaccine-resistant strain. We urgently need more protection.

We cannot rely on one-size-fits-all border quarantine, it is too risky. Lockdowns are too expensive. We need, today, DIY Covid tests. Let us create incentives so the government app can quickly track and trace any Covid outbreak.

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