In an exclusive interview with Newsroom, Ashley Bloomfield discusses the trajectory of the Delta outbreak, reveals how this summer will look different from last year’s and says the “unique” Level 1 freedoms New Zealand has enjoyed over the past year are a thing of the past
30 September, 2021
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says New Zealanders shouldn’t expect a return to the 2019-style freedoms of Level 1 in a world where the Delta variant remains dominant.
“People need to be thinking about a future that’s different from what we’ve had, pre-Delta, which was very long periods … unique in the world really, of effectively normal lives. Alert Level 1,” he told Newsroom during an exclusive interview about the Delta outbreak and the path forward for New Zealand.
“The future, I think, is going to look different.”
The added restrictions – including masks, wider use of the NZ COVID Tracer app and some sort of vaccination pass to enter certain venues – are needed to secure the country’s elimination status, Bloomfield said. Despite the fact cases have remained stubbornly above zero in Auckland, the health boss says he is still dedicated to elimination.
The ongoing discovery of new unlinked cases shows that the Government hasn’t fenced off all routes of transmission.
“Cases just popping up, for example, a number of them have turned up at a hospital emergency department, and that does suggest there is still some chains of transmission out there – a few – that we haven’t identified through the community testing,” he said.
“So we will be wanting to see those numbers of unlinked cases come down.”
“For some of those classic summer events and visiting some of those classic summer sites, there’s a likelihood that people will be required to show their vaccination status or show that they’ve had a recent negative test as an alternative.”
Bloomfield isn’t ready to entertain a scenario where Delta in Auckland proves impossible to eliminate and says the supercity’s 83 percent first dose vaccination rate (among the eligible) is a potent tool. Does he have a Plan B?
“The Plan A is the same,” he equivocated when asked.
“We’re already seeing the impact of vaccination in Auckland. Vaccination has helped us in our efforts to get around this outbreak. We’ve just got a few embers that keep flaring.
“Every time we see an ember flare up, we will go in hard with testing, isolation and contact tracing. That will continue to be the plan.”
A summer of freedom and jabs
Bloomfield said that would be the case even if Delta reared its head during the coming summer, although he might not be as quick to pull the lockdown trigger.
“Maybe we’re moving to a different approach in the context of a highly vaccinated population. If you think about it, the alert levels are quite blunt instruments,” he said.
“As we move into a more highly vaccinated state, we will see a different application of different measures, maybe in a more nuanced room. It will be the baseline measures we have and then which ones we step up and/or down depending on what’s happening, in order to support contact tracing and isolation efforts.”
How likely is it that we’ll see a significant escalation of restrictions this summer? That depends a lot on vaccination rates, Bloomfield said.
“Summer is our friend. Just as winter is a real challenge for these respiratory viruses. Coming into summer at this time as we get our vaccination rates up will be really helpful,” he said.
“But just as having no virus in the country by keeping it out at the border last summer was our ticket to enjoying all those festivals and things, this year our ticket is high vaccination rates.”
If New Zealanders want to enjoy the freedoms of summer, they’ll also have to accept three changes in particular that Bloomfield expects will form the foundation of those baseline measures he mentioned earlier. These are the ways that Level 1 will be different from how it was in the past and they’re likely to be with us for the long haul.
“One is, of course, that scanning is now compulsory in attending many places. We will see that much more as a routine thing [than last summer],” he said.
“Secondly, mask use. We’re seeing that a bit now. I think there will be a baseline level of mask use particularly in accessing services or public spaces or on public transport. The third thing is, I think that certainly for some of those classic summer events and visiting some of those classic summer sites, there’s a likelihood that people will be required to show their vaccination status or show that they’ve had a recent negative test as an alternative.”
Bloomfield expects most people will be on board with the expected proliferation of vaccination certificates or passes.
“That’s something that people will just need to get prepared for. You can see a very rapid discussion happening about that and quite a high level of acceptance, I think, that where it’s a discretionary activity it’s appropriate for not just those organising but for those attending.”
Reopening New Zealand
By supercharging the vaccine rollout, the Delta outbreak has also brought forward the debate about getting the last few vaccine holdouts jabbed and about how to reopen to the world.
“The outbreak, in a way, because it had such an outbreak on vaccination rates so quickly, it brought the future forward. The discussions now about the border are probably more live than we thought they might have been when we had that session with Sir David Skegg and others six weeks ago.”
Bloomfield’s vision of the future is one where New Zealand sticks to elimination.
“The key is the way we’ve managed it to date – and that is keeping all our options open. In a sense, we’re entering the next phase of the pandemic, from our country’s response and also, you could say, globally. And that is people being vaccinated,” he said.
“The next is this phase of having high levels of vaccination and being able to roll that increasingly out to the whole population. I think that will happen through 2022, we will see the studies come through even in younger children. And there’s no reason to believe the vaccine won’t be safe and effective in under 5s as well.”
If vaccination is comprehensively rolled out across the globe, then we will enter a third phase of the pandemic in which the coronavirus becomes endemic and less able to overwhelm health systems, hospitalise or kill vast swathes of the population and even mutate into more transmissible variants.
“Just when that is, I don’t know. It’s a few years away, I would have thought.”
New Zealanders shouldn’t be expecting in 2022 a return to life like it was in 2019, with the borders wide open and without masks or scanning, Bloomfield said.
“The other thing is, clearly the future of international travel looks very different,” he added.
“It’s been a very laissez-faire approach to allowing communicable diseases just to go wherever they like around the globe. I think both as part of the ongoing response to this pandemic but also as part of making sure we are better prepared for any future pandemic, I think we will see much stronger measures around requirements around vaccination and making sure that people are not unwell before they are travelling.”
From the world of mythology this is more for entertainment
New Zealand is still virtually flu-free, monitoring shows – something a virologist says could pose a health system headache alongside Covid-19 when our borders eventually re-open.
Normally each year, more than 200,000 New Zealanders catch influenza and an estimated at least 500 people die from it – a figure equivalent to 2 per cent of all deaths, and more than the annual road toll.
Last year, however, flu rates were dramatically crushed by 99.9 per cent due to the circuit-breaking effects of closed borders, a nationwide lockdown, record flu vaccinations and other measures to stop Covid-19.
ESR virologist Dr Sue Huang said that trend has continued over this year’s winter period, with no influenza epidemic or outbreak reported, and almost no flu circulating in the country.
Since January 1, only five cases have been confirmed by ESR – mainly among travellers returning from overseas.
Cases of other respiratory viruses and infections spreading around the country have also been squeezed down to low rates by New Zealand’s second lockdown.
The most recent report from the WellKiwis study, which has been tracking flu among children in the Wellington region since 2019, showed how cases of rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, and other viruses plummeted between August and September.