Australian ski tourists should be forced to download and use New Zealand’s Covid Tracer app as part of newly proposed measures to guard against a fresh virus outbreak, an expert says.
It came as flights between New Zealand and New South Wales remained open today as the Australian state’s cluster of Covid-19 community cases grew to 21.
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the risk of an infected person boarding a plane from NSW to New Zealand remained low currently, given the number of cases was a tiny fraction of the Australian state’s population.
However, he did say New Zealand was at “very high” risk of another outbreak caused by more infectious virus variants circulating the globe.
That meant we needed to ensure all frontline workers were vaccinated, ensure masks were worn more widely outside of alert level 1 and make scanning and using the Covid Tracer App mandatory in high risk indoor environments, such as ski venues, he said.
Local health teams had been closely watching how similar countries – Taiwan, Singapore and Australia – were coping, Baker said.
“And all of them are having setbacks at the moment – that is a very worrying pattern.”
NSW, in particular, was battling a fresh Covid outbreak immediately after Victoria contained a separate community bout of community cases.
NSW had worryingly confirmed 10 new community infections since yesterday.
And NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said more cases were expected in the coming days.
The danger posed by the highly infectious Delta strain of Covid-19 was also made clear to authorities in the latest NSW outbreak, as CCTV footage inside Sydney’s Bondi Junction Westfield showed how quickly the strain could spread.
NSW’s chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said the footage showed the virus transmitting between two people during a “momentary crossover” in the shopping centre.
Singapore and Taiwan – which was widely considered a world leader for containing the virus for more than a year without using lockdowns – had both recently suffered Covid outbreaks.
They were “related to the way infections were introduced by air crew”, Baker said.
He also said the NSW outbreak appeared to have started when someone – who was transporting returning travellers and who was unvaccinated and not wearing a mask – got infected.
That meant New Zealand should use its virus-free period to learn from Australia and further strengthen defences against the more infectious variants, Baker said.
That firstly included ensuring all frontline workers had completed their vaccinations.
“I’m not sure we are quite there yet,” he said.
The second step should be to update New Zealand’s alert systems to make sure they could cope with an outbreak of variants that were much more transmissible indoors.
Part of that should be to ensure face masks were worn more widely outside of level 1 when New Zealand had to go into stricter alert levels.
That could mean outbreaks were contained without resorting to lockdowns, Baker said.
The third step should be to make scanning and use of the Covid Tracer App mandatory for high-risk indoor environments.
That included nightclubs, bars, restaurants and possibly retail outlets like malls.
“I think we are past the stage of saying it is optional for high-risk indoor environments – not for everywhere – just those places,” Baker said.
Venues that arriving tourists were likely to visit should also require mandatory scanning in, he said.
“One example I would give is that we are seeing how Australian skiers are flying into Queenstown and going into ski venues,” he said.
“And they are notorious for super spreading episodes in the pandemic overseas.
“Yet only one-quarter of Australians are downloading the app and using it.
“We need a systematic change to stop that and make it a requirement.”
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