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'Anticipate international travel restrictions for quite some time', Covid-19 modelling expert warns

Don't expect international travel restrictions to lift anytime soon, warns Professor Shaun Hendy who's is leading a team modelling the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus.

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Professor Hendy is leading the team that are modelling the Covid-19 coronavirus spread, he talks to Q+A on March 29, 2020. Source: Q+A

On TVNZ1's Q+A this morning, the University of Auckland physics professor told host Jack Tame that even if the next four weeks of lockdown "goes to plan… the reality is it's (Covid-19) gotten out of control overseas". 

"That makes it quite dangerous for us, even if we can keep ourselves safe here and eliminate (Covid-19) in the next four weeks people should anticipate international travel restrictions for quite some time, until we have that vaccine, which would then protect us."

He said antibody tests could also be put in place, which is a blood test to check if a person has been exposed to Covid-19 and have immunity.

Professor Hendy said currently in New Zealand a lot of Covid-19 cases are being seen that are related to international travel. That is expected to drop or plateau. 

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However, he said "what we’re really concerned about, what we’re watching as modellers is those clusters of community transmission".

"Those are the ones that have the potential for exponential growth we’re seeing overseas."

The recent modelling projected that without intervention, such as the current lockdown restrictions, there would be 80,000 deaths in New Zealand due to Covid-19. 

"The 80,000 figure is the worst case scenario," Professor Hendy said. "It’s still a possibility we could have tens of thousands of deaths, but given the steps the Government has taken, that has reduced the possibility of that happening all the time."

Instead, New Zealand could see "just be a handful of deaths".

Yesterday, both confirmed and probable cases of Covid-19 rose to 451, up on 368 from Friday. 

"We have a couple hundred cases in New Zealand and we know from overseas that means there will likely be some deaths," Professor Hendy said. 

"If our tracing and testing regimes are strong enough, then that will really restrict these numbers (of deaths), if not these lockdown measures will have to go on for longer and we’re still facing a scenario where we’re facing thousands of deaths."

He anticipated the lockdown period, currently set at a minimum of four weeks, depended on how well the country sticks to the measures. 

"People should prepare themselves for a longer lockdown, it’s certainly a possibility that we might have to have longer lockdowns."

He also suggested the chance of regional lockdowns, where "some parts of the country may come off Alert Level 4 earlier than other parts, particularly if we’re able to contain and keep the disease out of certain towns or regions, they might be able to lift their levels early".