The view from lockdown in New Zealand – from a Bristol reporter

the view from lockdown in new zealand from a bristol reporter - The view from lockdown in New Zealand - from a Bristol reporter

I made an emergency dash home to Auckland on March 17.

My brother was dying of cancer and I had wanted to spend time with him before the end.

But Covid-19 restrictions – I was required to self-isolate for 14 days along with other new arrivals to New Zealand – meant he died before I was able to see him.

And a four-week national lockdown imposed mid-way through my quarantine meant we were unable to hold a funeral.

It’s been tough.  

But I remain in lockdown in Auckland, grateful to be alive and to have a job.

the view from lockdown in new zealand from a bristol reporter 2 - The view from lockdown in New Zealand - from a Bristol reporter

My brother’s teddy bear looks out from his home in West Auckland, joining other teddy bears in windows around the country to entertain children on their daily lockdown walk. (Image: Amanda Cameron)

And I feel lucky to be riding out the pandemic storm in the city of my birth rather than in my adopted home in Bristol.

So far there have been no Covid-19 deaths in Auckland, a city of 1.66million.

In Bristol, where 463,000 people live, 89 people have died in the city’s hospitals after testing positive for the virus.   

So what’s made the difference?

Auckland and Bristol share some similarities: both have changeable weather, a distinctive bridge, and an elected mayor.

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But it’s not the climate, geography or local government that has made the difference here.

True, Auckland is a sprawling city covering nearly 5,000km2 as opposed to Bristol’s relatively tiny 110km2, so social distancing is easier when you’ve only got 339 people per km2 as opposed to 4,213.

But dozens of parts of Auckland have more than 4,000 residents per km2, according to Statistics New Zealand, so population density is not the determining factor.

This is about national leadership and the timing of strict public health interventions.

Decisive government saw NZ “go hard and go early”

Much has been made of New Zealand “squashing” rather than flattening the curve, as the  Washington Post  put it.

The government response has been swift and decisive, and its communication has been simple and clear.

Crucially, our leaders made it plain they wanted to save as many lives as possible, and to do that we would have to “go hard and go early”.

On March 19, when New Zealand had just 28 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the country shut its borders to anyone who wasn’t a permanent resident or citizen.

Two days later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a clear plan of action. There would be four escalating “alert” levels with ever-tightening restrictions, which were spelt out in simple language so everyone knew what to expect.

On March 23, when there were 102 confirmed cases but still no deaths, Ms Ardern announced we had moved from level two (reduce) to level three (restrict) to “break the chain of community transmission”.

the view from lockdown in new zealand from a bristol reporter 7 - The view from lockdown in New Zealand - from a Bristol reporter

Piha beach. A final walk along a deserted west coast beach before New Zealand was put into lockdown and driving was limited to essential travel only. (Image: Amanda Cameron)

Two days later we entered level four (eliminate) and the country went into a minimum four-week “lockdown”. Residents must stay at home, venturing out only for essential work or travel or for daily local exercise, keeping a minimum 2m distance from anyone outside their “bubble” or household. 

The government is set to announce on April 20 whether it will lift the lockdown next week or whether more time is needed at the most stringent alert level to eliminate the virus.

Mid-way through lockdown NZ has a “strong half-time lead”

Today (April 14), this small country of 4.98million reported a rolling total of 1,366 cases and nine deaths.

The death toll is expected to climb further, but the number of new cases is dropping daily, with just 17 reported today.

It’s not just the measures themselves that have produced what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described in sporting terms as a “strong half-time lead” mid-way through the lockdown period.

Crucially, Ms Ardern and the country’s top health official, director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, have brought the public with them.

Trusted leadership and public obedience 

We trust them because they have been clear with us about what they are doing, when and why.

They are trying to save as many lives as possible using the best science available.

It helps enormously that both are effective communicators, making announcements and answering journalists’ questions together at daily lunchtime briefings broadcast on television and radio.

It also helps Dr Bloomfield is a public health physician and therefore perfectly suited to leading the pandemic response.

In one hilarious development, the mild-mannered doctor has become somewhat of a national heartthrob, with self professed “Bloomers” declaring their crushes on social media and a fan Twitter account set up to retweet them.

Opposition parties have also helped build trust by not exploiting the pandemic crisis but backing the government in a show of rare political unity.  

All that trust means that as a nation we have been pretty good about following the rules.

Despite the relatively low numbers of cases and deaths in New Zealand, our compliance with Covid-19 restrictions is behaviourally closer to that of harder-hit Italy or Spain, according to an analysis of Google mobility data by online magazine The Spinoff.

And almost two-thirds of New Zealanders are willing to have the lockdown extended so Covid-19 can be eradicated, according to the results of a survey released by Research New Zealand this week.

But NZ has its share of concerns and ‘Covidiots’ 

Of course, it’s not been perfect.

There have been calls for more Covid-19 testing, greater availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and enforced quarantine of new arrivals rather than self-isolation on a “high trust” basis, all of which the government has addressed to some degree.

And New Zealand has its share of “Covidiots” who ignorantly or arrogantly flout the lockdown rules.

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Embarrassingly for the Prime Minister, her Health Minister was one of them. David Clarke was demoted to the bottom of the cabinet rankings and stripped of his associate finance portfolio after he was caught mountain biking and driving 20km to the beach during the lockdown.

But, in general, for a country with a “she’ll be right” attitude, the degree of public compliance has been pretty darn good.

Fingers crossed for Bristol and the UK

I hope for the best for the UK, not least because I have a husband, friends and family in Bristol and I want to join them again as soon as possible.

But my heart sinks when I read about the rising death toll in the city and watch as the pandemic in the UK follows a trajectory similar to Italy’s.

Six weeks after Prime Minister Boris Johnson joked that he was still shaking hands with everyone, including at a hospital treating coronavirus patients, the UK recorded a total of 11,344 Covid-19-related deaths after 697 more patients died in just one day.

It feels nightmarish that a country with one of the best health systems in the world is having to build field hospitals and temporary morgues to cope with the expected number of deaths.

Sadly, it seems likely, based on the experience of other countries including New Zealand, that quicker and more decisive action could have prevented many of them.

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