A Christchurch restaurant in level four. Today people outside Auckland will find out when and if they’ll move to level three. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
A Christchurch restaurant in level four. Today people outside Auckland will find out when and if they’ll move to level three. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

ScienceAugust 27, 2021

Siouxsie Wiles: Ignore the uninformed windbags. Lockdowns really do work

A Christchurch restaurant in level four. Today people outside Auckland will find out when and if they’ll move to level three. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
A Christchurch restaurant in level four. Today people outside Auckland will find out when and if they’ll move to level three. Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

To nail delta, we can’t afford to loosen our grip, writes Siouxsie Wiles.

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Today everyone outside Auckland will find out whether they will move out of alert level four anytime soon. Those of us in Auckland are likely to be here a little while longer. 

The nature of this virus has meant that we’ve had plenty of near misses since our last major lockdown. Not so long ago we had the visitor from Sydney. From the locations of interest, it looks like he had a great weekend in Wellington. Yet despite testing positive, he didn’t infect anyone. I found myself caught up in that near-miss. A few hours after he checked out of his hotel, I checked in to it. My Covid Tracer App diary told me we had missed each other by several hours. But when I got a scratchy throat and runny nose later that week, I went and got tested. It was just a cold.

I think that Sydney man was our first brush with the New South Wales delta outbreak. The outbreak there started back in mid-June when a driver picked up the virus while transporting international air crew. That one case seeded an outbreak that now has over 15,000 people infected. Yesterday was another record-breaking day for New South Wales with 1,029 new cases. They currently have 698 Covid-19 patients in hospital, with 116 of them in intensive care, and 43 of them ventilated. People are dying. Three deaths were reported yesterday. They were men in their 30s, 60s, and 80s.  None of them was in hospital. This is what a slow move into a light lockdown gets you. It’s heartbreaking, because it didn’t have to be that way. But it looks like New South Wales is sticking to its approach. 

The New South Wales outbreak has been seeding small and large outbreaks all over Australia and now it has seeded one here in New Zealand. I know the sheer number of cases and the speed at which they have risen has really scared lots of people. This is what delta is like. It moves fast and it is very infectious. That is why we had to move to alert level four so quickly. Because it is so infectious, we are likely to see more cases as the household contacts of people who are already infected start to test positive themselves. Data from around the world is showing that once delta gets into a household or workplace pretty much everyone will get infected. It is absolutely crucial that delta doesn’t get into the workplaces of any of our essential workers.

An opportunity to learn and adapt

While it was always a possibility that the virus would breach our defences, this is a good reminder that we need look at all our processes again and fix whatever holes allowed the virus to get through. One thing we can start with is ditching the two-metre “safe distance” bullshit and taking airborne transmission more seriously. The Japanese have been telling people to avoid the three Cs for ages now. What are the three Cs? 1. Closed spaces with poor ventilation. 2. Crowded spaces. And 3. Close-contact settings like close conversations. Here in New Zealand, that means we need to start thinking more about ventilation. And not just in MIQ. If we are to start opening our borders next year, we’ll need to improve ventilation everywhere. And not just by telling people to open the windows. The silver lining, though, is that improving ventilation within our buildings will likely have a positive impact on all sorts of other health issues. 

Don’t forget the lag!  

Because of the time between people being infectious, developing symptoms and getting tested, and between tests being processed and reported, we need a few more days before we know how well our alert level four restrictions are working. I’m certainly optimistic. We also have to remember, though, that the lag is what can make us feel overconfident that we’ve nailed an outbreak when in reality there are still one or two loose ends. With delta we can’t afford to move down the alert levels too quickly. If we do, we risk spending Christmas with some level of restrictions. 

Remember this graphic from Toby and me? Its from right back at the start of the pandemic. And it is as true today as it was then.

Level four should mean level four

To nail delta, we clearly need our restrictions to be tight. One of the things I’m concerned about is that it feels like some people and businesses are treating this lockdown as a sort of alert Level 3.5. Websites are springing up telling people which businesses are doing online ordering and deliveries. That feels more like level three to me. Remember Toby’s bubble bursting graphic? The more businesses that are operating with people on site, and the more employees they have working together regardless of whether they are wearing masks and staying two metres apart, the more bubbles are connected. Just one infected workplace will trigger infections in lots of households.  

We need to stay the course

I’ll be honest with you. I’m finding lockdown really hard. I think it’s partly because I spend my days (and nights, my family would argue …) reading study after study after study on the impacts of Covid-19 in those countries that have chosen to live with the virus. The impacts are already huge and still not even fully realised yet. I worry about my family and friends overseas. I got a text the other day letting me know one of them had just tested positive. But I also worry about the people I don’t personally know. They are all important.

What’s mentally exhausting is having all that knowledge about Covid-19 while being bombarded each and every day with the uninformed reckons of people who believe they are experts in infectious diseases despite all evidence to the contrary. They are all over our mainstream media and social media feeds. They are in my email inbox and leaving me voicemails. They scream at us from near and far that lockdowns don’t work, elimination is a fantasy, and we all just need to get on with our lives. 

In all honesty, what keeps me awake at night isn’t delta. It’s that those screaming bloviators will undermine the collective response that has served us so well so far. We are living proof that lockdowns can work if they are strict enough, kept in place for long enough, come with financial support for affected people and businesses, and are used alongside the test-trace-isolate strategy. 

Yes, delta has changed the game. But we’ll beat it by doing what we did last time. By working together. Kia kaha. 

Keep going!