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Bring back the Alert Level system

The traffic light system isn’t fit for purpose but New Zealand still needs a clear framework for responding to Covid-19 surges, Marc Daalder writes

Comments:We’ve hit crisis point with Covid-19 once again, but this time with no toolbox to get us out.

That was the implicit message behind the Government’s announcement on Thursday that masks and RAT kits will be free to all New Zealanders, but the country won’t be moving to the Red setting in the traffic light system.

Modeling shows Covid-19 hospitalizations could exceed the peak seen in the initial Omicron wave in the next two to three weeks, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said. Given hospitalizations lagged reported case numbers by a week, and those case numbers lagged actual infections by about a week as well, urgent action now is needed to flatten the curve and keep hospitalizations below 1000.

Despite this, no new public health measures or restrictions were announced on Thursday. The Red setting, Covid-19 Minister Ayesha Verrall said, “would likely only offer an incremental benefit”.

The Government has painted itself into a corner on Covid-19.

Across March and April, it took the traffic light system designed to stop Delta and gutted it even more. Green, Orange and Red were meant to correspond to a dual set of gathering limits across hospitality, hairdressers, gyms, cinemas and more – a looser cap for venues that used vaccine passes and a stricter one for those which opted not to.

Of course, those vaccine passes are now gone. While the Government said it could reintroduce them if needed, that looks increasingly unlikely as the weeks go by. Contact tracing, scanning QR codes and other measures were also scrapped from the system after the first Omicron peak. The toolbox was flipped upside down and shaken furiously – we were left with the dregs.

That is: gathering limits and masks in most places at Red; masks in most places other than schools at Orange; no mask requirements at Green. Across all levels, a set of isolation rules that experts say aren’t aligned with the science.

No wonder Red is unlikely to make a difference, when it’s been so thoroughly stripped of any meaning.

Back in March, the Government insisted the tools it had just cast from the toolbox would still be available if needed. Now it has found out the obvious: It’s a lot harder to reintroduce restrictions when just a few months ago the public saw you remove them without a clear system for restoring them.

By cutting these public health measures from the traffic light system entirely, the Government only compounded the issue. The purpose of a framework like the alert levels or traffic lights is to signal what’s possible in response to changes in the Covid-19 situation.

Even when we were at Level 1, we knew a Level 3 or 4 lockdown could happen if the circumstances warranted it. Sure, compliance ebbed with each reintroduction of restrictions, but most New Zealanders were comfortable with the restrictions because it was within the bounds of their expectations.

That was the true beauty of the alert level system. It took scientific conclusions about the likely need for fluctuating restrictions as Covid-19 surged and receded and mapped them onto a framework anyone could understand.

The original traffic light system did this too, with a greater focus on vaccine passes.

The Government’s communications have struggled when it deviates from this path, tinkering with settings within a single level of the existing framework. We saw that in October last year, when the three-step plan to move Auckland out of Level 3 was widely ridiculed. The three-phase Omicron plan was also met with confusion earlier this year.

We may be about to see a repeat of those failures. Bloomfield told Newsroom on Thursday that the Ministry of Health was looking at what changes would need to be made to Red to get it to work for Omicron.

That smacks of yet more making it up on the fly.

New Zealand sorely needs a framework designed to handle widespread community transmission of hyper-transmissible variants like Omicron. Just like the alert level system was built in response to the most up-to-date evidence, a new system should be aligned to the latest science. That framework could be flexible, to allow for tinkering in response to future variants, but the bones need to be clear and resilient to changes in the Covid-19 situation.

Without that framework, all we’re left with is the desperate pleas of health officials to follow the advice already in place and not being followed.

The Government has been “encouraging” and “recommending” caution around Covid-19 for months, even as it continues to weaken and repeal actual rules.

Is it any surprise people are taking direction from the Government’s actions and not its words?

There’s no reason to think the latest barrage of encouragement and recommendations will change anything. And that’s a dire conclusion to come to when even Bloomfield says immediate, urgent action is needed to avoid health system overwhelm.

“It’s today. These are today actions. Everybody can make a difference in terms of their actions today,” Bloomfield said.

“That’s the plea: The sooner they do, then the lower the peak will be and the lower the impact on our health system.”

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