The Prime Minister at yesterday's media conference

By keeping Auckland at Alert Level Two till at least Monday the Government has enabled Auckland businesses to claim subsidies if their incomes are down.

Legislation passed under urgency on Tuesday night in Parliament will enable the payments.

They are part of what has appeared a much more assured Government response to the latest outbreak.

That was underlined yesterday when the Cabinet accepted the recommendation of the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield that the Level Three lockdown in Auckland end last night even though two new cases of Covid had been discovered there.

And though the Prime Minister vehemently rejected the idea, the overall impression was that the Government is learning to live with Covid.

Bloomfield reported that all of the close contacts of the three Covid cases in Papatoetoe had returned negative tests and 80 per cent of the 1139 students at Papatoetoe High School had so far returned negative results.

Two were positive.

Ardern said this was good news.

What this tells us is that we don’t have a widespread outbreak, but rather a small chain of transmission which is manageable by our contact tracing and testing procedures in terms of level two restrictions in Auckland,” she said.

It was the size of the chain that was critical.

In August a cluster which originated in South Auckland and then expanded to Mt Roskill involved  159 people and forced the Ministry of Health to chase 2621 close contacts.

That meant Auckland stayed at a Level Two lockdown for 18 days.

But the Ministry identified only 128 close contacts of the Papatoetoe family.

Bloomfield yesterday credited the extensive testing that has been carried out since the weekend with providing a reassurance that Covid had not spread beyond the close contacts.

Over 7000 tests were conducted in the 24 hours to yesterday morning.

Along with that, results from February 15 of wastewater testing were also available.

Ardern said that Level Two was built to contain cases within an area to make contact tracing easier to do.

Bloomfield said that early contact tracing was now critical because the new disease variants, from South Africa and Britain, might have a short incubation period.

It really demands us to get them quickly with identifying contacts, isolating them and subsequently testing them,” he said.

Interestingly, he said studies showed that most people who caught Covid did not pass it on to anybody else, even within their own household.

“We saw this in the Northland case where a very close household contact didn’t get infected,” said Bloomfield.

“Whereas whereas there are some individuals who seem to infect other people without even getting in the same room.”

These sort of nuances place a premium on testing and contact tracing to allow a more targeted management of outbreaks.

What is also clear is that lockdowns carry real costs which start to add up.

Infometrics senior economist, Brad Olsen says he expected consumer spending activity in Auckland to fall around 40% per day at Level Three, based on evidence from the August 2020 restrictions.

“Otago and Wellington regions are likely to see noticeable declines in spending, as leisure and business travel is curtailed,” he said.

“Consumer spending across the entire country is likely to be down 15% per day.”

But the Government is now offering a  Resurgence Support Payment for businesses affected by any resurgence of COVID-19.

Firms that experience a 30 per cent drop in revenue over seven days will be eligible.

The payment would include a core per business rate of $1500 plus $400 per employee up to a total of 50 Full-time equivalent employees. ($21,500).

The Government seems to be becoming more comfortable with the idea that Covid is here to stay and that management of it will require dynamic policymaking rather than one big hit. That is what the experience in Papatoetoe would appear to show.

Covid 19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins alluded to this in Parliament yesterday.

“We’ve got a system that has learned to learn—a system that learns and adapts, that incorporates the lessons from abroad, where they are appropriate, and builds those into New Zealand’s response,” he said.

“ We have a response that strengthens day by day, that requires constant vigilance and constant effort.”

There is, however, criticism that the Government may not be as open to new ideas as Hipkins claims.

The battle over whether the Government will commission Rako Science’s University of Illinois saliva test to provide daily mass testing continues.

The company is to meet the Ministry today to put its case.

That prospect appeared to have the approval of the Prime Minister who told Parliament the Government viewed saliva testing favourably.

“Anything that is easier for the workforce is something that we’d like to see,” she said.

“However, we, of course, also rely on the advice of our officials, so I’m very pleased that they are meeting with some of those who have been advocating for the use of saliva-based testing, I believe, tomorrow.

“ We’ve already got it underway in roll-outs in some of our facilities, and I look forward to greater use of it across the board.”

But ACT leader David Seymour suggested the Government’s delay in introducing mass saliva testing might be one reason why the latest outbreak in Auckland had occurred.

“There is a very real possibility—perhaps a probability—that if we had better testing, then we wouldn’t have needed such a long lockdown, because we could have actually found the source of this current outbreak early,” he said.

“So it could have saved New Zealanders huge costs to their healthcare, to their education, to their anxiety, to their livelihoods, and to businesses.”

And that’s where the Covid argument is headed now; how to catch outbreaks early so that contact tracing is easier and thus the outbreak itself becomes manageable.

It’s about living with Covid.  

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