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New Zealand Trio Call for Rethink of Virus Elimination Strategy

07/02/2020 | 04:02pm

By Stephen Wright

WELLINGTON, New Zealand--Prominent New Zealanders have called for more debate about the government's goal of eliminating the coronavirus, warning that isolating the country from the world can't be sustained for the long term.

Helen Clark, who was prime minister from 1999 to 2008, Rob Fyfe, who was CEO of Air New Zealand Ltd. for seven years, and the government's former chief science adviser Peter Gluckman said the current aim of absolute elimination of the virus is unrealistic and called for a strategy for "re-engaging" with the world.

Aided by its island geography and remoteness, New Zealand effectively ended local transmission of Covid-19 by imposing one of the world's strictest lockdowns from late March.

The brute-force style measures, which kept people at home and shuttered most businesses, were criticized by opposition politicians and some public health experts as unnecessarily draconian.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's initial warning of tens of thousand of deaths was based on modeling by epidemiologists that assumed that contact tracing of infected people and physical distancing would be ineffective at controlling the spread of the virus.

Ms. Ardern has said recent opposition calls for a less restricted border were "dangerous."

The discussion paper authored by Ms. Clark--one of Ms. Ardern's political mentors--and Mr. Fyfe and Mr. Gluckman said no border is foolproof and the goal of zero cases will be impossible to sustain. Acceptance of a manageable level of risk is needed to move forward, it suggests.

"From the moment of going into lockdown, work was needed on defining a strategy and the processes that would be required to move past total quarantine," they said.

The advantages New Zealand has gained by eliminating the virus will be lost "if our trading competitors are able to engage with our customers and suppliers in ways that are not possible for us," the trio said.

The three former leaders also faulted the government's failure to develop an effective contact tracing system for new infections since that will be a prerequisite for a more open border.

Privacy concerns about digital methods of tracking may have been overstated because services such as Google and Uber already have access to such data via smartphones, the paper said. Establishing independent oversight of the data collected could address ethical and privacy issues.

"Failure to even start discussions towards seeking societal approval for use of these technologies further reduces our options."

 

Write to Stephen Wright at stephen.wright@wsj.com

 

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