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Encouragement the future in NZ COVID fight

To the frustration of public health experts, New Zealand has no plans to increase restrictions even as the country reaches its highest COVID-19 death rate of the pandemic.

On Tuesday, the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths stood at a record 23, following the announcement of 21 new fatalities.

The toll has reached 1870 – more than 1800 of whom have died this year, following the arrival of the Omicron variant.

The health and hospital system is fast approaching breaking point.

There are 788 people hospitalised with COVID-19 across the country, short of the pandemic record of 1026 – but the current wave of coronavirus cases is coinciding with the fiercest flu season in recent memory.

Despite the worsening numbers, a ratcheting up of rules is not being contemplated.

COVID-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall announced last week the government would hand out more free masks and rapid antigen tests, granting extended eligibility for antivirals and boosters to older New Zealanders.

However, Jacinda Ardern’s government – once credited with a world-leading pandemic response – is not considering reinstating mandates or applying mask standards to slow the spread of the virus.

To put New Zealand’s response in a nutshell, it has moved from elimination to encouragement.

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirmed there would be no political interference with New Zealand’s COVID-19 rules.

“There is no difference in the advice we’re providing and the current settings,” he said.

Academics and researchers, including the University of Auckland’s Siouxsie Wiles, are exasperated.

“There are public health measures we should be using, centred around what can reduce transmission,” Ms Wiles said.

“Better ventilation, air filtrations, use of masks, and good quality masks.

“I’m really disappointed we’ve gone from a collective response to a personal response.”

New Zealand is currently at ‘orange’ in its traffic-light themed COVID-19 restrictions framework.

Ms Ardern describes the key tools in New Zealand’s toolkit as mask-wearing, vaccine uptake, and isolation for the sick and their household contacts.

At orange, the official advice encourages New Zealanders to wear masks “whenever you leave the house”, with a small number of mask-wearing mandates still in place, including for flights, health care and public transport.

University of Otago professor Michael Baker says the government should add schools to that list.

“Governments all around the world are struggling with the fact the COVID-19 pandemic is not going away,” he said.

“There is a collective desire to wish it away.

“At one level, government is meant to articulate the will of the people, so I understand that if they feel the public has decided the trade-off is not acceptable.

“But COVID-19 is turning out to be much tougher than anyone imagined.

“We’ve got to reframe our response into something that is more about ongoing management.”

Dr Bloomfield has likened mask-wearing to the harm-reduction outcomes of putting on a seatbelt when driving.

Dr Baker says a more fitting metaphor is of drunk-driving, given a failure to wear masks endangers both the individual in question and others.

In one of his final press conferences before stepping down as health chief next week, Dr Bloomfield drummed home the encouragement line.

“I would certainly encourage those who are organising gatherings to think very carefully about what measures they can put in place to protect people,” he said.

The director-general is taking his own advice – cutting numbers and canning karaoke at his farewell party, scheduled for Tuesday night.

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