Wellington: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defended her “Covid zero” elimination strategy Thursday amid fears an outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant has rendered the previously successful policy ineffective.
The Delta case appeared in Auckland last week, ending New Zealand’s six consecutive months of no local transmission. New Zealand is one of the last coronavirus-free areas in the world.
Since then, this infection has surged to the largest group of infections recorded in the country during the entire pandemic, with a total of 277 cases.
Ardern said that she believes that even Delta strains can be eradicated again in the community, and health experts advise her to stick to the elimination method.
“In their view, it’s not only possible, it remains the best strategy and I totally agree,” she said Thursday after announcing 68 new community cases.
Her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison this week said it was “just absurd” to try to eliminate Delta, adding: “New Zealand can’t do that.”
Australia pursued a Covid-zero policy for about 18 months, but runaway Delta outbreaks mean some authorities there are now talking more about containment than elimination.
The New Zealand Herald this week asked if Ardern was “chasing rainbows” trying to quash Delta and even her Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins conceded it raised “big questions” about the policy’s effectiveness.
Ardern said she was “not fussed” by such concerns, pointing to the success of a pandemic response in New Zealand which has resulted in just 26 deaths among a population of five million.
“We wanted to save people’s lives, and we have; We wanted to try to have people’s lives lived as normally as possible, and we’ve had some of the shortest periods of restrictions of any country,” she said.
“And we wanted to save jobs and the economy, with the economy running at pre-Covid levels, we’ve done that too.”
Ardern said that Delta Air Lines has forced adjustments to its elimination strategy — such as faster nationwide lockdowns and more extensive testing — but this is still a valid goal.
She said that New Zealand can study alternative policies when raising the vaccination rate. Currently, these vaccination rates are among the lowest in developed countries, with approximately 20% of the population fully vaccinated.
“No one wants to use lockdowns forever and that is not our intention… but for now, while we vaccinate, elimination is the goal and we can do it,” she said.