New Zealand was “literally a week away from not being able to contain” coronavirus when the decision was made to plunge the country into a nationwide lockdown.

The startling revelation has been made by Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners’ medical director Dr Bryan Betty, saying New Zealand was staring down the barrel of a “potential health system meltdown” similar to those seen in Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“At that stage, we could see what happened when you lose control,” Betty said.

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Betty, a member of the Ministry of Health’s Technical Advisory Group which had oversight of the Covid-19 national response, outlined the claim in a letter sent to GPs on Thursday night.

Dr Bryan Betty, medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners, says at the time lockdown was called the country faced a stark choice.

“We’ve had to confront this (currently) untreatable disease in the same way our parents and grandparents once faced other viruses – by practicing physical distancing and good hand hygiene,” Betty wrote.

Speaking to Stuff, Betty said at the time lockdown was called, the country faced a stark choice.

“We were either going to go left and follow Europe – and Italy in particular – and I thought we were literally one week away from that, or we [were going] down a track of lockdown, which actually halted the spread of the coronavirus in New Zealand.

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“You’ve got to remember that at that time we had exponential growth going on. [Our case numbers] were doubling every day. We looked to see what was happening overseas and you got to a point where there were cases and illnesses and sickness and the hospital systems basically got overwhelmed,” he said.

“Looking at Italy, we had a very clear idea of what the future was starting to look like if you lost control of it and you allowed the exponential growth to go on,” Betty told Stuff.

To date, Italy has seen 234,013 cases of the virus, and 33,689 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. In comparison, New Zealand has had 22 Covid-19 fatalities and 1504 cases.

Ross Giblin/Stuff
Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Taita College students the Government was buying itself some time with the call to move into lockdown.

Concerns the health system would be completely over-run by Covid-19 patients in March were echoed by Education Minister Chris Hipkins during a presentation to Taita College students last month.

Hipkins said the Government thought it was buying itself some time by setting a swift escalation to alert level 4 in motion.

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“We thought if we could buy ourselves another month, we could get more ventilators, we could get more hospital beds ready, we could get more staff trained, we could get better prepared, so more people would survive,” Hipkins explained.

As New Zealand prepares to a likely move to alert level 1 next week, Betty told doctors in his letter that it would be “remiss at this point to rest on our laurels and think this is finished.”

“In some of the modelling I’ve seen, it would take just three to five patients with Covid-19 to continue their normal business for three days, undetected, to face a potentially exponential increase in cases again,” Betty wrote.

With no evidence of community transmission, Betty was confident the virus was controlled, but said the big challenge now was keeping control of the borders.

He said doctors needed to be prepared to step up again should a second wave happen.

“We are not finished, nor potentially will we be for the next 18 months,” Betty wrote.