A call for plan B from academics

Very little was known about COVID-19 when governments around the world set in motion various strategies to tackle the contagious respiratory disease. There are now nearly two million known cases (worldometer 14/2/20) and many more that are asymptomatic and not known. Surveillance, such as testing done in Iceland, suggests that the infected number is around ten times the number of known cases, that means tens of millions of cases around the world, making elimination impossible. The risk of illness with COVID is generally low for working age and young people. All over the world the data is showing that infection age median is around mid-40s and the death age median is around 80 years.

Most countries are implementing measures to slow the rate of infection spread. Some have lockdowns others have stringent measures but no lockdowns, while others like Taiwan combine some stringent measures but have kept schools open. In NZ there has been a hard lockdown for three weeks but basic measures such as plentiful supplies of PPE gear for clinicians, wide access to testing and difficulties tracing case contacts have not been resolved. 

Treasury is now forecasting that unemployment could reach 10% at best this year and maybe as high as 25% if the lockdown lasts for months. A sharp economic downturn is inevitable and there are health and social impacts that need to be given serious consideration.

A campaign has been launched by the following academics who say “International health data and experience is showing that New Zealand’s lockdown may now be unnecessary, and even more harmful than the problem we’re trying to solve.”

The people involved are:

  • Dr Simon Thornley – Senior lecturer of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, The University of Auckland

  • Dr Grant Schofield – Professor of Public Health, AUT, Auckland

  • Dr Gerhard Sundborn – Senior lecturer of Population and Pacific Health, University of Auckland.

  • Dr Grant Morris – Associate Professor of Law, Victoria University of Wellington.

  • Dr Ananish Chaudhuri- Professor of Experimental Economics, University of Auckland and Visiting Professor of Public Policy and Decision Making, Harvard University, Massachusetts, USA

  • Dr Michael Jackson – Postdoctoral researcher with expertise in biostatistics and biodiscovery, University of Wellington

We are a group of academics who are concerned that such a strategy is not proportional to the threat posed by COVID-19 to New Zealanders’ health and that it is likely to substantially harm the nation’s long-term health and well-being, social fabric, economy, and education.

We recognise that COVID-19 has overwhelmed some hospitals overseas, with overflowing intensive care units in some densely populated cities, such as New York, and Milan. This is the principal risk posed by the transmission of the virus and we seek to avoid such a situation in New Zealand. In some European countries, there is excess mortality attributable to these outbreaks. Rest homes are especially vulnerable to outbreaks caused by the virus.

We believe that such a scenario is less likely to occur in New Zealand due to our lower population density. We also see that Australia, a country with greater population density in some regions, but in many respects, similar to ours, has seen sharply reducing disease incidence for several weeks, despite having a more relaxed lockdown policy.

We believe that it is in the best interests of the country to rapidly transition to a situation similar to the government’s alert level 2, while closely monitoring the spread of the virus and its impact on the health system. This would enable the majority of businesses to continue to operate and schools and universities to open. It would also allow essential domestic travel to resume.

We believe that an exclusive focus on the number of new cases of COVID-19 is less important than measures of whether or not the spread of the virus is causing an increase from background rates of hospital admissions, premature deaths, and intensive care bed occupancy. These latter measures are more important than the former in terms of deciding whether or not the country should be placed under strict lockdown in the future.  READ MORE


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