WHO: Careful what you wish for ending lockdown

As countries in Europe plan a tightrope walk back out of lockdown, the World Health Organisation warns it is too early to relax strict suppression measures in the fight against Covid-19, writes Peter Bale

Two weeks into New Zealand's aggressive and early lockdown to combat the spread of Covid-19, voices at home and abroad are urging an easing of restrictions in order to resuscitate the economy, a risky strategy which health experts fear could trigger another wave of infection.

Austria, Denmark, and Norway have said they are considering easing some of the tight restrictions imposed on movement and business later this month, apparently believing they have achieved sufficient suppression of the spread of the virus to free up the economy and return towards normalcy.

In New Zealand, some of the same voices who suggested the Government hadn't reacted fast enough or hard enough (then did a rhetorical backflip to suggest Jacinda Ardern had overreacted) are again flipping the coin of public opinion in the belief no one remembers what they said yesterday.

There are, naturally, real fears that the economic cost of Covid-19 lockdowns could cause greater human damage than the virus itself through unemployment, hardship, suicide and economic decline. The World Trade Organisation forecasts global commerce falling by up to a third.

National Party leader Simon Bridges, who seems determined to score political points when magnanimity is just within reach, said businesses should be allowed "back in action if they don't pose a risk".

The Prime Minister swatted that away: "A strategy that sacrifices people in favour of supposedly a better economic outcome is a false dichotomy."

Don't relax yet

The World Health Organisation, which raised the alarm on the coronavirus early and loudly no matter what blame game Donald Trump may be trying to play, made clear its thinking was more with Ardern than with those ready to take a faster route to ease back on lockdown restrictions in Europe and elsewhere.

"Now is not the time to relax measures," WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, told a news conference overnight.

He urged politicians in Europe not to be deluded that their circumstances suggested easing was possible because they were watching a worse picture unfold in the United States.

"A dramatic rise in cases across the Atlantic skews what remains a very concerning picture in Europe," Kluge said, warning that the continent still has "a long way to go in the marathon".

He added: "It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of society."

Nordic risks

Denmark, one of the first European countries to close its borders with neighbouring European states, has said it is exploring how to reactivate movement and economic activity, starting with opening daycare centres and schools on April 15.

“This will probably be a bit like walking the tightrope. If we stand still along the way we could fall and if we go too fast it can go wrong. Therefore, we must take one cautious step at a time,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told a media briefing earlier this week. (Reuters)

Denmark on March 11 closed schools, daycare, restaurants, cafes and gyms, and shut borders. Frederiksen said bans on gatherings of more than 10 people would stay in place until at least May 10.

As of midday New Zealand time on Thursday, Denmark (which has 5.6 million people and shares borders with Germany and Sweden) had 5,597 cases and has had 218 deaths. (Johns Hopkins University).

A post-Easter resurrection

Austria's chancellor said he wanted to launch an economic "resurrection" after Easter, having been more or less under near-complete lockdown for the past three weeks, though perhaps not as tightly as New Zealand.

The Austrian plan is to reopen non-essential shops of 400 square metres (4,300 square feet) or less and DIY shops on April 14, the day after Easter Monday. They would be followed by all shops, shopping malls and hairdressers on May 1. Restaurants and hotels would have to wait until mid-May at the earliest and no public events would be held until at least late June. (Reuters)

“We reacted faster and more restrictively than in other countries and could therefore avoid the worst. But this fast and restrictive reaction now also gives us the possibility to come out of this crisis more quickly,” chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a conservative who governs with the left-wing Greens, told a news conference.

“Easter week will be a decisive one for us. It is one that will determine whether the resurrection after Easter that we all hope for can happen as such,” he said.

As of midday New Zealand time on Thursday, Austria which has 8.8 million people and open borders with Italy, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, has 12,942 cases reported and 271 deaths. (Johns Hopkins University).

Norway said yesterday it planned to start easing its lockdown “little by little”.

“Together we have taken control of the virus, therefore we can open up society little by little,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told a news conference. (Reuters)

She said kindergartens would reopen between April 20 and 27, schools from the first grade to the fourth grade from April 27. Norwegians would be permitted to go to their beloved "hytte" - same as a New Zealand bach - from April 20. (For more on this see the earlier "Which house are we self-isolating in, darling?")

Norway, which has 5.3 million people, and land borders with Sweden, Finland and Russia, has had 6,042 cases and 101 deaths up to midday New Zealand time on Thursday. (Johns Hopkins University).

Stockholm syndrome

Sweden has posed a problem for its Scandinavian neighbours and a dilemma for the rest of Europe, with its much more relaxed approach to the spread of novel Covid-19. 

In Sweden, movement has been virtually unrestricted and many businesses have remained open as it publicly embraces the concept of "herd immunity". It has been aiming to protect the most vulnerable members of society while hoping sufficient healthier people actually contract Covid-19 to theoretically achieve a level of immunity within the population high enough to restrict transmission. All while not totally shutting down the economy. That's proven controversial at home too and there are signs that with infections rising, Sweden may shift course. (The Washington Post).

Epidemiologists and other experts have generally said any relaxation of lockdown and social separation methods would imply the need for massive testing programmes beyond those in high-risk groups, extensive work on contact tracing to track spread, and potentially some form of "passports" for those who have had Covid-19 and are therefore believed to have a measure of immunity. It may also require accurate antibody testing to be sure of who has had it (which so far seems unreliable) and testing at borders.

New Zealand first

Such thinking was evident in Jacinda Ardern's comments on Thursday proposing a vigorous quarantine regime at New Zealand borders from tonight and certainly when the domestic lockdown is eased.

"No-one goes home, everyone goes into a managed facility," she said of New Zealand citizens who might return to the country after today. It was clear it would also apply as the country moves into recovery phase.

"I am also signalling that the requirement for 14 days of quarantine or managed self-isolation in a Government-approved facility will be a prerequisite for anyone entering the country in order to keep the virus out," Ardern said in the daily briefing on Covid-19.

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners