Under pressure Health Minister David Clark will today front up to MPs on the Epidemic Response Committee to face questions about his credibility for repeatedly breaching lockdown rules.

The committee will also probe the Government’s health response by asking questions of Clark and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield about border control, testing capacity, community transmission and what needs to be known before the lockdown can be eased.

Covid-19 clusters should be treated as community transmission – expert

Otago University professor and epidemiologist Sir David Skegg is advising the committee, as he did last week.

Skegg told the committee there had been 500,000 more cases worldwide and 33,000 further deaths from Covid-19 in the last week.

He said in a pandemic of this kind, decisions had to be made quickly based on imperfect evidence, and Governments needed to agile and change positions quickly if needed.

The number of new cases in New Zealand had not been “shooting up” despite more testing, he said.

The number of international travelers had fallen off and about 22 people in New Zealand caught the virus via community transmission. About 300 cases were also down to “clusters”, but Skegg said he would also call those clusters community transmission.

“What we need is to see two curves plotted: the cases who arrived from overseas and the people who were infected here. Regrettably, the data provided by the ministry does not make this possible.”

Otago University Professor and epidemiologist Sir David Skegg will advise the Epidemic Response Committee this morning. Photo / Otago Daily Times

But he said the fact there were only 13 people in hospital and one death so far showed that the outbreak didn’t appear to be out of control.

He said New Zealand was the only western nation that could eliminate the virus. That meant reducing the number of new cases to zero of a very low number.

Being on a path to elimination meant moving out of lockdown quicker, compared to Australia, where the lockdown may last six months.

Hotels, schools and restaurants could open, he said, and new outbreaks could be managed by rapid identification, contact tracing and isolation.

The lockdown had been “impressive”, and testing capacity had been expanded, but epidemiological surveillance was still needed to show more about community transmission.

‘Tighten border or extend lockdown’

He said border restrictions needed to be tighter or the lockdown would need to be extended. Last week he called for mandatory quarantine for all overseas arrivals.

He said contact tracing also needed to improve, especially because people can be infectious but presymptomatic.

App-based contact-tracing was being used overseas, using voluntary schemes that depended on people to opt-in.

“That has limited the value of the Singapore system.”

He said he would be happy to know his location data, held by for instance Google, was being used to fight Covid-19, and most New Zealanders would probably also consent.

The need to improve contact tracing was urgent, he said.

He said surveillance testing would be “careful sampling of people” to fill the current holes in the testing data. People that could be tested might include the frontlines of health services and supermarkets.

“It’s urgent to get on to this.”

Skegg has previously called for the mandatory quarantine of all overseas arrivals, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is now actively seeking advice on whether that is a suitable longer term border solution.

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Otago University Professor and epidemiologist Sir David Skegg will advise the Epidemic Response Committee this morning. Photo / Otago Daily Times

This morning Clark revealed that he drove his family 20km to the beach during the first weekend of the lockdown, just days after then-Police Commissioner Mike Bush said that doing so would breach the lockdown rules.

Clark, who last week apologised for driving 2km to go mountain biking, offered to resign but Ardern said that would cause too much disruption in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis.

Instead she stripped Clark of his associate finance portfolio and demoted him to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings.

Clark will face questions from National Party leader Simon Bridges, who chairs the committee, as well as other Opposition and Government MPs.

Bridges has also been criticised for driving from his home in Tauranga to Wellington for the committee hearings, which he chairs via video conference.

“I don’t take these things lightly, but I am the Leader of the Opposition, I’ve got constitutional duties, I’m running a committee in extreme circumstances where there is no Parliament,” he told RNZ of his commuting to and from Wellington.

“I have to do that in the best way possible and it seems to me that does mean doing it in Parliament where I have the resources, where I can do it in a professional way, and I’m available to media.”

Other National MPs on the committee were also in Parliament last week, including Whangārei MP Shane Reti, and Taupō MP Louise Upston.

Yesterday Ardern did not criticise the MPs, saying only that the committee had been set up to allow them to participate from their own homes.

Mandatory quarantine

Yesterday Bridges told the Herald he would press Clark and Bloomfield on why a mandatory quarantine for all people flying into New Zealand wasn’t already in place.

Bridges said he has heard anecdotal reports of New Zealanders returning home who haven’t been checked on.

“They could come right off the plane today with Covid-19 and be in the supermarket by the afternoon.

“We will be very supportive if the Government moves in this direction. It’s got to be one of the lowest-hanging fruit we’ve got for preventing the spread of Covid-19.”

National Party leader Simon Bridges chairs the Epidemic Response Committee and has been calling for mandatory quarantine of all overseas arrivals to New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

About 6000 foreigners came into the country between March 16 and March 20, when border restrictions were raised from an obligation to self-isolate to the closure of the border to all non-New Zealanders.

More than 55,000 Kiwis have returned home from overseas in the two weeks since the self-isolation rule was brought in on March 16.

It is unclear if the Government knows where these arrivals are, or if any of them have tested positive for Covid-19.

Increasingly tighter borders
* March 16: All overseas arrivals must self-isolate except from Pacific; 6000 foreigners enter NZ before borders close
* March 20: Borders close to non-NZers, NZers must self-isolate; more than 50,000 NZers come home in the last half of March
* March 26: Symptomatic arrivals are quarantined, asymptomatic people with no self-isolation plan are put in supervised accommodation, the rest can go home; 131 now in quarantine, 795 in accommodation, 5400 allowed to head home

Ardern said at her post-Cabinet press conference yesterday that quarantining all arrivals was something she was seeking advice on.

The Government would have to be sure that the needs of those in mandatory quarantine could be met, and that the measure was sustainable for many months – potentially until a vaccine was ready.

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