Claire Trevett: The goal of stamping out Delta relies on information we aren’t getting


Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has become the latest in the choir of overseas voices suggesting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is chasing rainbows in her mission to stamp out the Delta virus.

Early this week, Morrison pointed to New Zealand as evidence that no country could hope to keep Delta out forever – nor did he necessarily think it was a goal that merited throwing everything at.

The impertinent fact Morrison left out was that Delta arrived in New Zealand from Australia, but Morrison could be forgiven for his sentiments.

Other international commentators have also enjoyed some schadenfreude as the “Covid-free” paradise comes a cropper, and finds itself closing up shop just as they are opening.

Throughout the Delta outbreak, Ardern has had a one word answer for what could happen if New Zealanders did not abide by lockdown rules.

That word is “Australia” where Delta is running rampant in New South Wales after weak lockdown rules were put in place.

Prime Ministers generally like to have choices.

Both Ardern and Morrison recently set out road maps with what those choices would be. At the time, both assumed they had the luxury of time to vaccinate.

Delta immediately drove them off-road.

The difference between Morrison and Ardern is that Delta may have taken choice away from Morrison already.

His focus now is on vaccinating rather than eliminating again, given the outbreak in New South Wales has shown no sign of abating.

Ardern may still have a chance at holding on to choice – but only if she can do what an increasing number of people say is the impossible: stamp out Delta.

That is not impossible – but it will depend on the lockdown.

A lot is hinging on the success of this lockdown, which makes it something of a surprise that Ardern opted to only extend Auckland’s lockdown until August 31.

It seems almost inevitable it will be extended again – and it seemed almost inevitable from before Ardern made that decision.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield recalled someone telling him that dealing with Delta was like dealing with an entirely new virus, it was so different from old-school Covid-19.

That may explain why this time the Ministry of Health appears to be struggling to present a clear picture of how and where the Delta outbreak is spreading.

In past outbreaks, it has been fairly easy to map cases along the way, linking up new cases with clusters or points of exposure. That was the case even in mid-2020 when there were multiple cases and clusters.

This time around, the same detail has been lacking. It has taken a week to get details even on the most concerning locations of interest.

It was only on Sunday that Bloomfield named a church service in Mangere as an event that had spawned a number of cases.

It was only on Tuesday that he gave a number: 58 people so far who either went to the service or were household or work contacts of those people.

The second ‘cluster’ was the Birkdale Group: the one including the Devonport tradie, whose positive result first alerted us to Delta.

That cluster now numbers about 23. It includes the Birkdale flat in which the tradie’s workmate lived, and the workmates, family and friends of his flatmates: a school in west Auckland, a building site in east Auckland, and so on.

Bloomfield said there were six places which were or could become clusters, but has only named two: the Birkdale group and the church.

The Ministry of Health declined to say what the other four were, citing the need for privacy for those infected.

Bloomfield has admitted they do not yet know how many, if any of the positive cases or close contacts were essential workers – supermarket workers, delivery people, health workers – who could have been out in the community working during lockdown – potentially spreading the virus further.

The longer it is before concerning locations are released, the greater the risk people are going about their business, still spreading the virus.

Either the Ministry of Health is withholding information, or it simply does not know itself how the cases are linking up. It is unclear which of those is most worrying.

We have learned more about the cases from the organisations and businesses affected than from the Ministry’s numbers.

There are now a number infected at AUT, but that has not yet been declared as a potential cluster.

It will take more than Ardern’s determination to get us out of this one. It will also take information.

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