The public health system is now said to be operating the promised "gold standard" contact tracing and testing system promised a week ago, even though key elements of it remain in development.
Speaking at the last daily press conference of the nearly five weeks of full national lockdown at alert level 4 to combat the covid-19 pandemic, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told reporters that the previously deficient national tracing system was "progressing very well".
However, it is not yet able to process a target of 1,000 cases a day through nationally linked district health board databases and is still ramping up to be able to process between 185 and 300 cases daily.
Asked directly whether the current status of the contact and tracing system was now at a "gold-standard" level, Bloomfield replied: "I believe we are that point."
However, even as late as last Friday, Health Minister David Clark was telling his Opposition shadow spokesman, Michael Woodhouse, that the health system was not collating nationwide numbers of people who had been unable to be identified as contacts of people who had tested positive for Covid-19, either by number or "proportion of all contact traces in total and by region."
Likewise, in answer to a second written parliamentary question, submitted on April 6 and answered last Friday, Clark was unable to give a "timeframe between a positive coronavirus test and resolved contact tracing around that person, if any, listed as longest, shortest and average timeframe per region."
Clark replied that "public health units, district health boards and the National Close Contact Service Centre would have to manually collate this information for each individual, which cannot be done in the timeframe allowed to respond to a written parliamentary question" and that it was "not in the public interest to commit significant resources" to answering such questions because of the "unprecedented workload volumes" being handled by the Ministry of Health.
Not good enough
Woodhouse said that was "not good enough".
"This is crucial data about potential Covid-19 carriers in our communities that should be at the minister's fingertips.
"Not only does the minister not know how many close contacts the Ministry of Health hasn't been able to contact, he also can't say what the average time for contact tracing is," he said in a statement. "The Prime Minister said that before we come out of level 4 we need assurance about the speed and capacity of contact tracing, yet the Minister of Health hasn't been able to provide this with the country about to move to level 3."
The contact tracing system has been a notable weak link in the Government's response to Covid-19, with regional tracing systems unable to be easily combined into a national system.
An audit by public health professor Ayesha Verrall has guided the swift creation such a system, but Bloomfield said Verrall would be consulted further in the week ahead about "what further action has been completed and any further issues we may have." He said a week ago that he expected the system to be up and running "within the week".
The system was now capable of tracing 185 people a day, would shortly be able to trace 300, with the ability to link all laboratory data and to trace 1,000 per day now close, Bloomfield said.
Elimination is not eradication
With just one confirmed and four suspected new cases of Covid-19 reported in the last day, the Government is becoming increasingly confident that it can manage the change at midnight tonight from level 4 to level 3 lockdown, which will allow some 400,000 New Zealanders to return to work tomorrow and allow some relaxation of physical distancing rules.
Asked whether the Government's goal of eliminating the virus was now in sight, Bloomfield stressed that elimination did not mean total eradication of the virus, but stamping it out to the point where any outbreak could be contained and managed without returning the country to lockdown.
That will involve "focused testing and tracing", as well as "surveillance testing" in different places to check there is no unexpected incidence of the disease that claimed its 19th New Zealand victim in the last 24 hours, a 90 year-old woman from a West Auckland rest home.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stressed the importance of maintaining hand-washing, cough etiquette, and physical distancing, along with urging anyone with any symptoms to seek a test immediately.
While a smartphone app was expected to be available in the next fortnight to help with tracing, Ardern said it would only ever be an addition to, rather than a replacement for, human contact tracing methods. She urged all New Zealanders to maintain a diary of their movements and who they had interacted with each day to assist contact tracing, if necessary.