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GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Professor Baker is right; New Zealand needs political leadership in pandemic

I’m not a fan of Twitter. Instead, I’m a reluctant user. However, I can only admire the precision of New Zealand Herald investigative journalist Matt Nippert who, on October 12, tweeted the following:

Lockdowns were the first to disappear; then sweeping; then MIQ; masks; and even boosters. Soon the only thing left from that era was Covid.

One of the most succinct statements I know involved Winston Churchill paying tribute to the tremendous efforts of fighter pilots and bomber crews to establish air superiority over England by defending her from Germany: “Never in the field of human conflict has not been so much due by so much to so little”. Quite fascinating if one ignores his own record as an imperial warmonger.

In a completely different context, Nippert fits that brevity. New Zealand may have given up on Covid-19 but Covid-19 has not given up on New Zealand. It is against this background that the call for a return to government leadership of the pandemic, initially through Radio New Zealand on October 14, made by leading epidemiologist the Professor Michael Baker: Professor Michael Baker calls for a new alert level system.

Call for a new protection alert level system

Responding to New Zealand’s first recorded case of the new Omicron BQ.1.1 subvariant, Prof Baker said a return to some sort of alert level system could help avert the worst in future waves of Covid-19.

In his own words:

We have already crossed two big Omicron waves this year”, in March with BA.1 and BA.2 and in July with BA.5.

If we see another wave coming up, which seems very likely, and whether it’s BQ.1.1 or one of the other subvariants starting to become dominant, we’re going to see more cases and all that.

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I think we need a system that when the risk of infection increases, we have the equivalent of an alert level system that describes the level of risk in a way that people really understand. We have alert level systems for fires, for earthquakes, for all these other threats. I think we still need it for the pandemic.

I think right now, unfortunately, the government and other groups are quite concerned about being seen as doing anything systematic. I think we need that leadership with the pandemic.

These subvariants are often very different from those that preceded them. In a way, the mere fact that they’re becoming more common overseas and causing waves of infection means they’re more likely to do the same in New Zealand.

They survive or thrive by escaping our existing immunity. Personally, I know people who have had [Covid] thrice. …and in some cases they say it wasn’t sweeter when they got it back.

Michael Baker calls for new protection alert level system

Michael Baker’s concerns are set against the backdrop of the recent increase in new community cases (infections) and an upsurge in new cases in Europe caused by the BQ.1.1 subvariant. He recommends a new alert level system which would specify, by way of example, the circumstances in which the wearing of a mask on public transport could be reintroduced.

Baker’s proposal should not be confused with the alert level system first introduced in March 2020 and suddenly replaced by the government’s confusing and less efficient traffic light system (which has now also been scrapped but without replacement).

700 more deaths this year?

Two days later New Zealand Herald published an article by its science journalist Jamie Morton based on interviews with pandemic experts, including Professor Baker: Another wave of Omicron risks hundreds more deaths this year.

New Covid infection increases

Baker observed that, over an eight-month period that included two peaks in cases and varying mortality trends, the daily average of deaths attributed to Covid-19 was around 8.5. Again, in his own words:

A simple extrapolation would suggest that we could see 700 more deaths for the rest of this year if this death rate continues.

What actually happens depends on several factors, especially the impact of new subvariants and decreased immunity.

If the average death rate seen with Omicron continues through the end of the year, we could see around 2700 total deaths, which would be over 7% of the total number of deaths for the year.

That would put Covid-19 on a similar level to stroke and lung cancer, but behind ischemic heart disease, which is our leading cause of death.

This estimate depends on the behavior of the pandemic over the next three months, which is unpredictable, so we could end the year with fewer or more deaths.

To follow science adrift from laissez-faire to false certainty

Over the past 12 months, there has been a drift towards a laissez-faire approach, despite some positive initiatives here and there in the face of the pandemic. Government leadership has shifted from visible collective responsibility and protection of our public hospitals (and their already overburdened healthcare professionals) to individual responsibility and silence on the protection of hospitals.

This drift has come at a time when Covid deaths have skyrocketed and public hospitals have gone from crisis to carnage. The much-vaunted friendliness of the government has migrated to creating political distance from the impact of the pandemic through desensitized indifference.

The current situation following the government’s announcement (October 16) of its intention to repeal its pandemic emergency legislation is well analyzed by critic Marc Daalder in his Newsroom article the following day: Pandemic false certainty.

When the pandemic first arrived in New Zealand in March 2020, the government rightly claimed that it was following the science (i.e. the evidence). This included advice from Professor Baker and his expert colleagues. He served New Zealanders well for about 18 months. We were an international example.

Then the laissez-faire drift began with a misstep in responding to Delta in Auckland. Then there was the disturbing ‘crackling of the cage’ effect of violence and other threatening behavior from far-right influenced anti-vaccination protests in Parliament.

The drift has now reached such a point that the government is ignoring the science of experts it has listened to before. Covid-19 is still in the country, causing both damage and death. The only predictable characteristic of this pandemic is its unpredictability.

Setting practical, evidence-based alert levels to prepare and protect the public is not just the right thing to do; it’s the common sense thing to do. Instead, the government intends to repeal our current protective legislation without putting anything in place to provide that protection.

Daalder’s conclusion bears repeating because it says it all:

The government’s latest assurances that somehow this time around will be different should be met with healthy skepticism.

Pious wishes about an end to the pandemic may win votes, but they are unlikely to win against the coronavirus.

Ian Powell was executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years until December 2019. He is now a health systems commentator , labor market and political living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Second opinion of Otaihanga