As New Zealand's strict lockdown continues, some have begun to look with envy at Australia's more relaxed restrictions. But is the grass really greener over the ditch? Kirsty Johnston reports.

The complaining began this week in earnest - New Zealand and Australia seemed to be having the same success against Covid-19, except Australia was having a better time of it in lockdown.

Hairdressers were open, National Party leader Simon Bridges said, joking about his own apparent need for a cut. They could go to liquor stores and get a takeaway coffee. Builders were allowed to continue to work.

Consequently the economic impact on Australia was less severe - they would go into lockdown with slightly higher unemployment and come out with lower, Bridges said.

Advertisement

His comments were similar to those made by a group of six academics who this week launched a campaign to lift lockdown early. They argued the New Zealand lockdown was an "overreaction", and their main reason why: Australia.

READ MORE:
Covid 19 coronavirus: Lockdown set to lift with 'a whole lot' of businesses likely to reopen - Winston Peters
Covid 19 coronavirus: Three days til lockdown D-Day and officials scramble to improve system weaknesses
Covid 19 coronavirus: What will life be like out of lockdown at level 3?
Covid 19 coronavirus: Your questions about alert level 3 answered

As the Government moves closer to making a decision about lifting lockdown, the clamouring from commentators about copying our Antipodean neighbour has only grown louder.

But it is that straightforward? We take a look at the differences and similarities between the countries to approaches, and their outcomes.

What does lockdown look like?

The lockdowns in both countries are more similar than they are different. It's unlawful to be outside unless you are doing essential shopping, exercise, seeking medical care, or you're an essential worker.

Both are a form of strict physical distancing, although while New Zealand's is centred on staying in your "bubble", Australia's is more activity based. Activities are limited where people can encounter each other - gatherings, pubs, cinemas and gyms - but most workplaces are able to operate if they can comply with social distancing rules, such as four square metres of floor space per person.

State borders are shut - the first time since the 1918 flu epidemic - but Australians do have more movement inside regions or suburbs - they can ride a bike across town, for example.

National leader Simon Bridges is calling for an early end to lockdown based on comparisions with Australia. Photo / File
National leader Simon Bridges is calling for an early end to lockdown based on comparisions with Australia. Photo / File

Construction and manufacturing have also been allowed to continue, and a wider range of shops is open in Australia, such as bottle stores and retail outlets, and cafes are open for takeaways. Bunnings is open. Schools are open. You can get a haircut.

Advertisement

However, a series of experts told the Herald while the measures look different on paper, in reality life there are more similarities to here than you'd think.

Tony Blakely, an honorary University of Otago epidemiologist based at the University of Melbourne, said while shops were allowed to be open, in practice, most were closed because there wasn't enough foot traffic.

Equally, although schools were allowed to open, because parents wanted to keep children at home, most schools were actually shut.

About 70 per cent of public servants were working from home and most businesses were following suit. Only where working at home was impossible were people going to their workplace.

Why the difference?

While Australia's lockdown is looser, it's also expected to last longer.

University of Otago Professor and epidemiologist David Skegg told the Epidemic Response Committee this week that while New Zealand's lockdown might last only four weeks (or slightly longer if experts aren't confident in the data), Australia's could last at least six months, and possibly up 18 months.

Advertisement

This is because while New Zealand has gone for an "eliminate" strategy - to get rid of the virus completely - Australia is going for more of a "suppression" approach.

Australia's chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy told the New Zealand committee this week he doubted "elimination" could be achieved in the long term.

"But if we were pursuing a total elimination strategy, that's the situation where you might go a bit harder for a bit longer - that's a debate we have to have, but at the moment there's no pressure."

He said if they were to pursue elimination, or if there were outbreaks, that's when things like construction and manufacturing would close.

'We could effectively eliminate the virus over the next few weeks'. Otago University Professor and epidemiologist Sir David Skegg appeared before Parliament's Epidemic Response Committee this morning.

What impact is each strategy having on the economy?

As of midday Friday, Australia's stock market had fallen 24 per cent since recent peaks in late February, compared to New Zealand's 12 per cent.

Both Australia and New Zealand's exports are forecast to drop in 2020; international tourism, transport and education will be particularly hard hit. Agriculture and processed food will be less affected because they can continue to trade.

Advertisement

Australia is expecting unemployment to hit around 10 per cent, while New Zealand is expecting unemployment to peak at 13.5 per cent, if we have a four-week lockdown with existing levels of government assistance.

Both countries have put up massive support packages for business, including wage subsidies and fiscal stimulus.

Some have argued Australia isn't taking as big a hit in the pocket so far because the definition of "essential" service is looser, so more businesses are able to keep operating.

Those people say this not only helps with cashflow, but allows Australian businesses to rebound quicker - because employees have been retained.

There are additional challenges in New Zealand because many businesses are small or medium-sized, without large balance sheets to absorb major shocks, so the longer lockdown goes on, the harder it will be for them.

However, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said if it got the health answer right, that would support business and the economy.

"Treasury modelling tells us that we are better off in the longer term to stay in levels 4 and 3 a bit longer now and defeat the virus rather than moving too quickly and having to move backwards and forwards between the levels or stay in them longer overall," she said.

Advertisement
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Treasury modelling says we are better off in the longer term to stay in levels 4 and 3 a bit longer now. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Treasury modelling says we are better off in the longer term to stay in levels 4 and 3 a bit longer now. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Equally, Australia said while its current lockdown was looser, if outbreaks worsen, it too would shut down construction, manufacturing and retail.

"The feeling in the national Cabinet was we would like to keep some of those core activities going, and clearly if things got worse or do get worse, we would go harder," Murphy said.

Whose health measures are better?

On a per-capita basis, Australia and New Zealand have similar case numbers.

Australia has recorded 6400 cases and 61 deaths compared to New Zealand's more than 1300 cases and nine deaths, but Australia's population is almost 25 million compared to New Zealand's 4.8 million - five times more people.

Both countries also have a relatively low rate of community transmission so far - less than 10 per cent - when compared to international cases (although there is debate over the terms "international" and "community").

And in both countries closing the borders has proved crucial, allowing them to "flatten the curve" of the Covid-19 infection curves.

Advertisement

However, there are some differences.

Australia's hospitalisation numbers are much higher.

Skegg said there were five times as many people in hospitals in Australia than in New Zealand - 378 compared to 15. This was despite Australia testing more - for example, New South Wales has completed 1950 tests per 100,000 people, compared to our 1300.

Professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely, who lives in Melbourne. Photo / Supplied
Professor of epidemiology Tony Blakely, who lives in Melbourne. Photo / Supplied

As yet, no one has been able to explain that difference. There are several theories: possibly Australia has a lower threshold for hospitalisation, or it's missing some cases.

Tony Blakely said: "What I take from that is New Zealand is doing a better job testing and finding those people out there who are asymptomatic or have very mild disease, and we must be missing them in Australia."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Advertisement

However, with such small numbers, any discrepancies could still be by chance.

Nicholas Steyn, a member of the Te Pūnaha Matatini modelling team, said Australia was still seeing higher case numbers than New Zealand - for example on April 14 they had another 64 cases compared to our 17.

He said that was also an important metric to focus on, as the per capita rate didn't matter in an epidemic until there was some immunity. "The virus doesn't care about the number of people in the population. It will continue to spread if allowed."

Blakely said the bottom line was that at the moment there was no way to know if the measures taken by New Zealand or Australia were more effective. The measure needed for that comparison was the R0 - the reproductive rate, or the number of people the disease was passed on to by a single person. And as yet, it's still too tough to quantify the R0 with any certainty.

What's the takeaway?

Michael Baker, the University of Otago epidemiologist, said international comparisons were always difficult - particularly when looking at small differences - because there were so many unknowns. This included the case definition, the way it was applied, and a multitude of other factors.

Other experts said that in Australia, there were also differences between states and the way they reported, and in the way its lockdown policies were implemented, so a national picture was less useful.

Advertisement

Blakely said the biggest threat in both countries was still the asymptomatic chain of infection - whereby someone didn't show symptoms and passed the disease on anyway. He said studies seemed to show for every case with symptoms, there was another that was silent.

"That means you could have asymptomatic transmission after lockdown was lifted," he said.

To compensate for that, before any relaxation in restriction was taken, excellent contact tracing and surveillance was needed.

On Tuesday, Skegg told the Parliamentary committee the same thing: it would be playing "Russian roulette" with the health of New Zealanders if it made a lockdown decision without first vastly improving rapid contact tracing and collecting more information about Covid-19 in vulnerable communities.

The race is on to find a vaccine for Covid-19, so when will one be ready? Video / AP

Skegg said New Zealand should be able to trace close contacts for all new cases within two to three days - Australia's current capacity - as well as having surveillance testing not only up and running, but completed by the end of this week.

"If the answer to those questions is 'no', I would submit that we're asking the Cabinet to play Russian roulette with the health of New Zealanders," Skegg said.

Advertisement

"I'm concerned the public health authorities have not yet completed the tasks that are needed to ensure we are on a path to elimination."