An expert epidemiologist says every day without a blanket quarantine at the border exposes New Zealand to potential coronavirus cases and the risk of the lockdown being extended beyond four weeks.
Otago University Professor Sir David Skegg told the Epidemic Response Committee this morning that New Zealand was the only western country in the world that was in a position to eliminate the virus.
But the lack of a mandatory quarantine at the border was an issue that needed to be dealt with promptly, rather than the last week of the lockdown, given the possibility that an infected person might fly into New Zealand today.
"They may be infecting other people and we start a whole new chain of transmission."
He has previously criticised the lack of a mandatory quarantine, and he wasn't sure why one wasn't already in place.
Ardern says 'water-tight' border needed
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday that she was seeking advice on the matter, and she told media today that the advice would be ready "very soon".
"We need a water-tight system at our border and I think we can do better on that," Ardern said.
She defended not implementing a mandatory quarantine earlier, saying the sheer number of people flying in made it impossible.
She said a mandatory quarantine would minimise the "human error" in the self-isolating model, and there was now capacity to do it as the number of overseas arrivals has dwindled to about 100 to 300 a day.
National leader Simon Bridges said that should happen immediately.
"It seems to me to be an absolute no-brainer. The calls for urgency have been there now for weeks. Let's please get on with it."
Earlier today Bridges, who chairs the committee, cited the admission last week that the police compliance checks on overseas arrivals self-isolating at home were not happening as promised.
An infected pre-symptomatic person could fly in to New Zealand and be wandering around the supermarket later that day, Bridges told the committee today.
Health Minister David Clark said Ministers had sent a "very clear message" to police about the need to follow through on those door knocks within three days of them arriving home.
New Zealand in 'brilliant' position'
There are 54 new cases today - the lowest number of daily new cases in two weeks.
Skegg told the committee there had been 500,000 more cases worldwide and 33,000 further deaths from Covid-19 in the last week.
The number of new cases in New Zealand had not been "shooting up" despite more testing, he said, but he noted the regional and demographic gaps in the testing data.
But he said the fact there were only 12 people in hospital and one death so far showed that there didn't appear to be an undetected outbreak.
He said New Zealand was in a "brilliant" position and the envy of the western world as the only western country in a position to eliminate the virus.
Elimination meant reducing the number of new cases to zero or a very low number.
If eliminated, the lockdown could be lifted and hotels, schools and restaurants could open, while new outbreaks could be managed by rapid identification, contact-tracing and self-isolation.
"We need to have a sense of urgency. This lockdown is very costly in human and economic terms.
"We need to use every day to the best of our ability."
He said the outbreaks in Italy and New York, where hospitals have been swamped and the death toll has climbed exponentially, was a vivid reminder of what could happen if the virus wasn't contained.
"We need to eliminate this pest as soon as possible."
Skegg said he was "a bit worried" that the criteria for an essential service was being loosened, adding that the cigarette factory in Lower Hutt should not have been allowed to stay open.
"We talked about going early and hard. I hope we don't end up going soft too quickly. Every single [relaxation] in the lockdown makes it less likely we're going to succeed."
Aside from a quarantine at the border and filling the gaps in testing data, he said contact-tracing needed to urgently improve - especially in light of the fact that people can be pre-symptomatic and infectious.
The use of apps had raised privacy issues, but Skegg said he would be happy to have his location data, held by for instance Google, used to fight Covid-19, and most New Zealanders would probably also consent.
The lockdown had helped in tracing close contacts, as the people being searched for were often all the occupants in that particular household.
But comprehensive contact-tracing would be even more important once lockdown was lifted, he said, given that many people would rush outside and interact with many more people.
The Health Ministry is looking at digital solutions to supplement its manual contact-tracing, while Otago University infectious diseases specialist Dr Ayesha Verrall had been asked to audit the contact-tracing process.
Flu jabs not being hoarded - Bloomfield
Authorities are working hard to get flu jabs out to GPs and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said he didn't think anyone was hoarding supplies.
The vaccination programme was brought forward this year and the Government put vulnerable and elderly people and health workers at the front of the queue.
But GPs are reporting a supply shortage.
Bloomfield said each DHB was working hard to redistribute supplies within and across regions.
"I don't think there's hoarding going on," he added.
David Clark said there was no shortage of flu vaccines but there was a distribution challenge.
Distribution was also cited when Clark was asked about reports that doctors were ordering 50 swabs but receiving only five.
Bloomfield said there had also been issues at a lab in Dunedin, and staff there last week had to prioritise tests that were most likely to return a positive result.
The rest of the tests were run after more testing kit supplies arrived, he added.
National MP Michael Woodhouse spoke of a family living in a "very remote area" were told by a GP and Healthline to be tested because of their symptoms. They went through a 10-hour return journey to a testing station only to be told there were not enough supplies and they were still yet to be tested.
Bloomfield said he was happy to chase up that case.
Simon Bridges said there seemed to be "teething" distribution issues seemed to be the problem for testing kits, PPE and flu vaccines.
Contact-tracing needs to jump from 60 to 80 per cent - Bloomfield
Bloomfield said the testing rate had been ramped up but the positivity rate had dropped, which was a sign that cases weren't going undetected.
Another sign was that the fatality rate was 0.1 per cent.
Woodhouse said the Health Ministry situation report from April 5 showed about 5000 successes out of 8000 attempts to find close contacts, and Bloomfield said that the roughly 60 per cent success rate needed to be closer to 80 per cent.
There were 19 people cited in the report who had refused to cooperate with contact-tracing, and Bloomfield said non-compliant people could be compelled into self-isolation under the powers of the Health Act.
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This morning Clark revealed that he drove his family 20km to the beach during the first weekend of the lockdown, just days after then-Police Commissioner Mike Bush said that doing so would breach the lockdown rules.
Clark, who last week apologised for driving 2km to go mountain biking, offered to resign but Ardern said that would cause too much disruption in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis.
Instead she stripped Clark of his associate finance portfolio and demoted him to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings.
Bridges has also been criticised for driving from his home in Tauranga to Wellington for the committee hearings, which he heads via video conference.
He has defended the commute by saying being in Wellington allows him to be a more effective Leader of the Opposition.
Other National MPs on the committee were also in Parliament last week, including Whangārei MP Shane Reti, and Taupō MP Louise Upston.
Yesterday Ardern did not criticise the MPs, saying only that the committee had been set up to allow them to participate from their own homes.
Yesterday Bridges told the Herald he would press Clark and Bloomfield on why a mandatory quarantine for all people flying into New Zealand wasn't already in place.
"We will be very supportive if the Government moves in this direction. It's got to be one of the lowest-hanging fruit we've got for preventing the spread of Covid-19."
About 6000 foreigners came into the country between March 16 and March 20, when border restrictions were raised from an obligation to self-isolate to the closure of the border to all non-New Zealanders.
More than 55,000 Kiwis have returned home from overseas in the two weeks since the self-isolation rule was brought in on March 16.
It is unclear if the Government knows where these arrivals are, or if any of them have tested positive for Covid-19.
Increasingly tighter borders
* March 16: All overseas arrivals must self-isolate except from Pacific; 6000 foreigners enter NZ before borders close
* March 20: Borders close to non-NZers, NZers must self-isolate; more than 50,000 NZers come home in the last half of March
* March 26: Symptomatic arrivals are quarantined, asymptomatic people with no self-isolation plan are put in supervised accommodation, the rest can go home; 131 now in quarantine, 795 in accommodation, 5400 allowed to head home
Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday that quarantining all arrivals was something she was seeking advice on.
The Government would have to be sure that the needs of those in mandatory quarantine could be met, and that the measure was sustainable for many months - potentially until a vaccine was ready.