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Defences bolstered but is it enough?

Editorial

The Government has responded to the heightened pandemic dangers posed by new, faster-spreading strains of Covid-19 by bolstering pre-departure and border defences with new test requirements.

However, New Zealand remains highly vulnerable to new community outbreaks and seems, with fingers tightly crossed, to have only got through the main summer holiday period without one by good luck.

The greater risks of and from Covid border incursions posed by the new strains and higher number of incoming cases, as the pandemic spirals out of control in parts of the world many returnees are coming from, are not mitigated by anything like best-practice contact tracing.

Most glaringly, use of the Government's Covid tracer app is pitiful — having fallen to about 500,000 scans a day this month, from 2.5 million a day in August.

The Ministry of Health also revealed yesterday that of the eight border incursions of Covid-19 since the end of July, contact-tracing efforts for the Auckland and Christchurch clusters fell well short of the Government's “gold standard” expectation of reaching 80 percent of case contacts within 48 hours of a positive case being returned.

In the cluster centred on South Auckland in August, it was only 60 percent. The MoH gave several reasons, including learning of potential exposure events late, and the cluster involving several people who questioned whether Covid-19 was real. It ended up with 179 cases, and included three deaths.

For the cluster in September involving a returnee who left managed isolation in Christchurch while still incubating the virus, then infected someone else on a chartered flight to Auckland, only 51 percent of contacts were reached within 48 hours. The outbreak was contained to six people.

Under the new rules announced yesterday, travellers from every country apart from Australia, some Pacific Islands and Antarctica will soon be required to produce a negative Covid-19 test before they leave for New Zealand. (This rule came into force for travellers from the United Kingdom and United States on Friday.) And from January 18, new arrivals will be tested on day 0/1 as well as the now-routine day 3 and day 12 tests (with the same Australia/Pacific exceptions).

The Government has rejected calls to limit returnees from virus hotspots such as the UK and parts of the US, and the suggestion that travellers be required to self-isolate at an airport hotel for several days before boarding their flight.