New Zealand needs to supercharge its ability to rapidly identify cases of coronavirus and trace any close contacts, an epidemiologist says.
The rate of testing in New Zealand has ramped up over recent days: up to the middle of the month, about 500 tests had been done; by Saturday, 1200 tests were carried out, following 1500 on Friday and 1000 on Thursday.
Of 155 identified or probable cases, the Ministry of Health has classified only four – three in Auckland and one in Wairarapa – as community transmission.
Dr Ayesha Verrall, an infectious diseases doctor at Otago University, saw an urgent need to quickly identify many more.
"We should aim to leave the lockdown in one month with the ability to identify and trace the contacts of 1000 cases a day," she said.
"We are currently struggling with 50."
This week's lockdown decision had been a "massive sacrifice" to make very early in an outbreak.
"This is only worth it if New Zealand pursues a goal of eliminating Covid-19. This means rapidly building our capacity for case identification and contact tracing capacity."
The country would need accessible testing, fast test turnaround times, rapid contact tracing augmented with smartphone apps and welfare support for those who struggle in isolation, she said.
"All these processes need to be fast, scaled up and integrated. China and South Korea have succeeded in this strategy of turning around large outbreaks, because they have strong public health infrastructure, following the lessons they learnt from the Sars outbreak.
"If we had better ability to find cases and isolate their contacts we would be able to manage larger number of cases without going into lockdown.
"That is how Singapore managed more than 500 cases without closing their schools.
"Building this capacity means we could look to the next 18 months with more confidence that we won't have large outbreaks or be in perpetual lockdown."
Ministry of Health director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told reporters today that New Zealand was continuing to expand its laboratory and contact tracing capacity.
"What the expanded laboratory capacity will allow us to do, if we have particular clusters, we can do intensive testing in an area or in an organisation or in a school to identify any cases there."
More testing kits have been sourced from Singapore to ensure New Zealand had enough capacity and community-based assessment centres – including drive-through hubs in Auckland - were being rolled out around the country.