Media Release: Expert group suggests way out of lockdown

14 April 2020

Expert group suggests way out of lockdown

A specially formed group of local academics, led by public health experts, says New Zealand can and should come out of lockdown, and has proposed a “Plan B” to do that.

The cross-disciplinary group of academics say they understand the rationale for New Zealand’s firm lockdown, but new data and experience of the COVID19 virus signals that it can be managed without the severe health, social and economic effects a lockdown imposes.

Group member Dr Simon Thornley, Senior Lecturer of Epidemiology at University of Auckland, says the lockdown strategy is no longer proportional to the threat posed by COVID-19 to New Zealanders’ health.

“Prolonged lockdown is likely to cause greater harm than the virus to the nations long-term health and well-being, social fabric, economy, and education.

“The real threat of the virus is that it can create more cases than health services can handle. This leads to unnecessary deaths and virus spread. But the risk of this happening is lower in countries such as ours with lower population density, and our health system currently has spare capacity.”

Data shows that a large majority of COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in people due to their comorbidities rather than directly from the virus. Even in Italy only 12% of cases were directly due to COVID.

“If you catch COVID-19 your likelihood of dying is the same as your average likelihood of dying that year anyway. It has been described as squeezing your year’s mortality risk into two weeks,” Thornley says.

“The way we stop the spread of an epidemic virus strain must be proportionate to the threat posed by the infection. The lockdown was appropriate when there was so little data, and when it seemed sensible to try to eliminate it or wait for a vaccine. But the data is now clear – this is not the disaster we feared and prepared for. Elimination of this virus is likely not achievable and is unnecessary. Moreover, elimination will be almost impossible to sustain as the virus is likely to become endemic across the rest of the world, and a vaccine may be years away.”

The group’s Plan B is to end lockdown after the four week period and immediately shift to a risk-based management plan, similar to the Government’s Level 2 format, with the principal aim of preventing stress on the health system.

  1. Low risk people should be allowed to return to their normal daily activities. For example:
    1. Schools and universities should reopen.
    2. All leisure activities are permitted.
    3. People should be allowed to return to work. Those over 60 and/or with underlying health conditions, and uncomfortable returning to work, could continue to work at home with support from their employer and government.
    4. Domestic travel by any means allowed.
  2. People at high risk of severe complications by virtue of age (> 60 years) or medical conditions (such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer or immunocompromised) should continue to self-isolate and socially distance. They should receive state-funded support and priority care. e.g prioritised for at-home supermarket delivery.
  3. Health professionals should carry out strict hand hygiene and be provided all necessary personal protective equipment.
  4. High risk communities and groups, with particular focus on rest homes, should be protected from COVID-19 cases or infection and provided government support to do so.
  5. Gatherings of over 100 people are prevented.
  6. Encourage improved hand hygiene and exclusion policies for ill workers.
  7. Border entry is restricted for the near-future to reduce the risk of imported infection.
  8. Monitor hospitals for overcrowding and limited capacity in intensive care.
  9. Contact tracing and quarantine of newly identified cases is essential. Resources should be made available to ensure this is adequately carried out.
  10. Seroprevalence surveys, with PCR, should be conducted as soon as possible to assess the proportion of the population who have been exposed to the virus. This would give valuable information about further risks posed to high risk individuals to facilitate their return to the community.

Founding members of the group 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; expertise in biostatistics and biodiscovery, University of Wellington

Contact: Simon Thornley, 021 299 1752 or Mark Blackham, PR: 021 891 042 |