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Use Covid break to bolster defences, scientists urge


New Zealand researchers say removing ‘traffic light’ system makes medical defences more important

New Zealand has dropped its ‘traffic light’ system for Covid-19 alerts, which scientists say puts more pressure on medical interventions and means the public health infrastructure must be improved.

Along with the traffic light system, mask mandates in all but sensitive settings have been lifted and household contacts no longer have to isolate. Eligibility for the antiviral Paxlovid has been widened.

As the country moves to ‘living with Covid’, its health and science needs are changing, according to some researchers. 

University of Otago epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig said the announcement of relaxed rules was missing “important elements”, such as consideration of the needs of disabled and immune-compromised people, clear scientific advice about the risks and how to avoid them, and a realistic acknowledgment that variants and new challenges will arise.

She said the “breathing space” provided by the dip in infections should be used to make “further investment in infrastructure and protections for the variants, epidemics and pandemics to come. To organise all of this activity, Aotearoa New Zealand needs a new pandemic plan that is effective and upholds Te Tiriti—and now is the time to formulate it and co-design it with experts and the public.” Te Tiriti, or the Treaty of Waitangi, was first signed in 1840 and contains principles for the protection of Māori culture.

Lasting public health measures

Michael Plank of the University of Canterbury and Te Pūnaha Matatini, a data analytics research centre, said the country “should use this period of relative respite to focus on lasting public health measures like improving indoor air quality, better sick pay entitlement so everyone can afford to stay home when they are sick, and continued investment in vaccine development and delivery.”

University of Auckland paediatrician and doctoral candidate Jin Russell said the impact of long Covid on New Zealand needed more local research.

“The interpretation of long Covid research studies to the New Zealand population has been tricky because the successful elimination strategy meant NZ skipped the ancestral strain Alpha and mostly the Delta variant as well,” Jin said. “If we are to achieve a good public health response, we need to ensure equity in access to boosters and antivirals.”