Australia and New Zealand remain among a small group of countries that have so far managed to subdue the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been keen to stress Australia is not entirely in lock-step with its trans-Tasman neighbour.
In an April 16 media conference, he said New Zealand had imposed a “state of even more extreme lockdown” than Australia, but had been less successful at suppressing the virus after accounting for population size.
“New Zealand decided to go a lot further, but I’d note that the outcomes we are getting are actually on a per capita basis actually better than what is happening in New Zealand,” Morrison said.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Is it correct that Australia achieved better per capita outcomes, even though New Zealand “decided to go a lot further” with its economic and social lockdown? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
Morrison’s claim is a fair call.
His suggestion that Australia achieved “better” outcomes on a per capita basis than New Zealand can be approached from several angles, including total confirmed cases per capita, new daily cases per capita, the total number of deaths per capita, or the number of daily deaths per capita.
Australia has not achieved a better outcome than New Zealand in terms of total (cumulative) cases per capita.
Nor has Australia achieved a better result on the number of total confirmed deaths per capita.
However, following both countries’ respective lockdowns, Australia was recording lower numbers of new daily cases per capita, using a three-day rolling average to iron out volatility.
Australia was also recording fewer daily deaths per capita, again using a three-day rolling average.
These measures capture the picture after the lockdowns were imposed, and better reflect Morrison’s claim about “the outcomes we are getting”.
However, any differences between the two countries have been marginal.
Moreover, the circumstances facing Australia and New Zealand were not identical.
During the week in which both countries ramped up their respective lockdowns (March 23 to March 29), New Zealand experienced a very rapid acceleration in spread of the virus, with the number of cases per capita jumping 371%, compared to a 122% increase in Australia.
New Zealand was also testing at a higher rate, raising the possibility that more cases were being identified, and potentially giving the false impression that eradication efforts were more successful in Australia.
As experts noted, it is too early to make definitive judgements.
Assessing the claim
In making his April 16 claim, Morrison linked the results to the lockdown measures imposed in both countries.
And he spoke of “the outcomes we are getting”, indicating a focus on results shortly before he made the claim.
To test Morrison’s claim, Fact Check used data from Monday, March 30, up to and including April 15, as a basis for comparison.
This represents the period immediately following the lockdowns imposed in both countries, up to the most recent full day of data available at the time Morrison made his claim.
As noted, there are a number of ways to assess whether Australia has achieved “better” outcomes than New Zealand on a per capita basis, including total confirmed cases, total confirmed deaths, new daily cases and new daily deaths.
But using the total number of confirmed cases or deaths as a basis for comparison does not tell us much about a country’s performance after lockdown measures have been introduced.
For example, a country might have experienced a high number of cases and deaths early on, inflating the total, but then have put measures in place to successfully suppress the virus.
Fact Check therefore places greater weight on the figures showing new daily cases or new daily deaths, rather than the cumulative figures.
Because the per capita numbers tend to be tiny and can be difficult to interpret, Fact Check has expressed figures as a rate per million people, in line with common practice.
Fact Check has relied on statistics compiled by Oxford University-based organisation Our World in Data, which in turn relies on data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an agency set up by the European Union in 2004 to track and monitor infectious diseases.
As Fact Check has previously pointed out, comparing statistics on coronavirus can be problematic, particularly since different countries use different methodologies for recording and reporting.
A question of timing
It is difficult to be precise about the timing of the respective lockdowns in Australia and New Zealand, as a staged approach was applied.
However, the week starting on Monday, March 23 was critical. During this week, both countries dramatically ramped up lockdown rules to control the virus.
At midday on the Monday, restrictions announced by Morrison the previous day came into force affecting businesses such as hotels, clubs, restaurants, entertainment venues, cinemas and casinos.
On the Tuesday, Morrison announced a ban on all Australians travelling overseas and expanded the list of prohibited venues to include nail salons, fitness centres, swimming pools, museums and places of worship, among others.
On the Friday, he announced that travellers arriving in Australia would be required to undertake mandatory 14-day self-isolation at designated facilities.
Meanwhile on March 23, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced a range of measures to be introduced in two stages over the week.
The first stage, called Alert Level 3, included the closure of non-essential businesses and a blanket ban on events and gatherings. The tougher Alert Level 4 involved closing all schools and public venues.
During that critical week, the number of confirmed cases per million recorded in New Zealand increased from 21 on Monday, to 99 the following Sunday — a rise of 371%.
In Australia the acceleration was not as dramatic, with the number of confirmed cases per million rising from 67 to 149, an increase of 122%.
Brian Cox, an epidemiologist from the University of Otago, said it was difficult to compare the two countries because the circumstances they faced at the time were not identical.
Associate Professor Cox likened the situation facing New Zealand to that of Italy, pointing to several clusters linked to returning travellers, a conference in Queenstown, two weddings with overseas guests, and a visiting cruise ship.
“These were similar to the cause of the rapid increase in the rate of infection in Italy,” Associate Professor Cox told Fact Check.
“The available facilities simply would not have been able to cope with that and the control of this cluster-based epidemic would have been completely lost.”
A ‘more extreme’ lockdown?
Morrison noted in his media conference that the measures put in place by the two countries “largely mirrored each other”.
However, he also said New Zealand “decided to go a lot further” by imposing a state of “even more extreme lockdown”.
In Australia, lockdown and social distancing rules have been less prescriptive, with more room for interpretation. The rules also vary, sometimes considerably, between jurisdictions.
The following table summarises major measures in place in Australia and New Zealand at the time Morrison made his claim on April 16.
|Travel||International arrivals quarantined for 14 days in city of arrival. International outbound travel banned (limited exemptions). Only Australian citizens, residents and immediate family members can travel to Australia.||No foreigners can enter NZ. Returning residents subject to quarantine on arrival.|
|Businesses||Most non-essential venues closed, including pubs, gyms, cinemas, casinos and places of worship. Restaurants and cafes permitted to offer takeaway/home delivery. Hairdressers permitted to operate on a restricted basis.||Heavy restrictions on non-essential businesses. Essential businesses allowed to stay open include hospitals, supermarkets, pharmacies, utilities. No takeaway food or coffee but some prepared food like meat pies allowed at petrol stations.|
|Schools/childcare||Federal government advice is that schools are safe, low risk environments, but it is up to states to decide whether to remain open and if so whether only for children of essential workers. Universities are closed. The government subsidises child care.||All schools, early childhood centres, universities closed. Government-funded child care workers providing some in-home care for children under 14 of essential workers.|
|Work||Work from home if feasible.||Work from home mandatory unless it is impossible. Only essential workers allowed to leave their house.|
|Exercise||Varies from state to state. Generally, can exercise with household members or one member of another household. Exercise in public spaces such as parks allowed, at a distance of 1.5 metres from others.|
No exercise allowed with members of other households. Exercise allowed in outdoor places close to home; two-metre physical distancing must be maintained.
|Leaving the house||People should not leave their house except for essential reasons. Essential reasons include shopping for food, exercising outdoors, going out for medical needs, providing care or support to another individual in a place other than your home, and going to work or study if you cannot do it from home.||Stay home other than for essential personal movement.|
|Public transport||Operating with physical distancing measures in place and increased cleaning.||Can be used by people working in essential services or by people getting medical assistance or essential supplies.|
|Social distancing||People must maintain a 1.5 metre distance from each other if they are in contact with members outside their household.||Keep a two metre distance from people at all times except household members.|
|Weddings||No more than five people in attendance, including bride and groom.||Not permitted.|
|Funerals||Funerals limited to 10 people. A four square metre rule and social distancing must be observed.|
Not permitted.People from the same self-isolation household group as the deceased person can go to the funeral home and cemetery with the deceased. Social distancing must be observed.
Sources: government documents as at April 16.
As the table shows, many of the measures put in place by the two countries were similar, although New Zealand was, as Morrison noted, stricter in its approach.
In New Zealand, for example, all but the most essential retail businesses were forced to close, whereas in Australia many shops were permitted to remain open, albeit on a restricted basis.
New Zealanders were also only allowed to stay within their “local area” when leaving home — that is, they could only visit places nearby for essential services or local exercise.
In Australia, domestic travel was to be avoided but some states had exemptions on restrictions, like visiting another property you owned or compassionate grounds.
In Australia, restaurants and cafes were allowed to provide takeaway, whereas in New Zealand they were forced to close.
Weddings and funerals were also completely banned in New Zealand (with some limited exceptions for close family), whereas in Australia they were allowed to take place with heavy restrictions limiting the number of people attending.
While it is clear New Zealand went further than Australia with its lockdown, less obvious is the question of whether Australia has been more successful in suppressing the virus.
Total cases per capita
The total, cumulative number of cases detected has been higher in per capita terms in Australia than New Zealand.
On April 15, the day before Morrison gave his media conference, Australia had notched up 252 cases per million people, compared to 224 in New Zealand.
Australia recorded an average of 37 cases per million more than New Zealand between March 30 and April 15.
Daily cases per capita
The impact of suppression measures can also be assessed by examining the number of new cases recorded each day. This is more relevant to Morrison’s claim.
To iron out daily volatility, Fact Check smoothed the figures using a three-day rolling average.
Over the three days to April 15, Australia recorded a daily average of 1.7 new confirmed cases per million people, compared to 2.0 cases per million in New Zealand.
From March 30 to April 15, Australia recorded an average of 6.0 new daily cases per million, compared to 7.3 new daily cases per million across the Tasman.
Deaths per capita
Another way to assess the relative performance of Australia and New Zealand is to look at confirmed deaths per capita.
As the graph shows, on total deaths per capita Australia has not achieved a better outcome than New Zealand.
By April 15, Australia had recorded 2.4 deaths per million, compared to 1.9 deaths per million in New Zealand.
What about the daily number of deaths?
As with the number of daily confirmed cases, this measure provides a more immediate snapshot, and reflects the results since the lockdown.
The following table shows the number of daily confirmed deaths per capita, again smoothed using a three-day rolling average.
As the graph shows, New Zealand’s average daily death rate overtook Australia’s during the second week of April.
Over the three days to April 15, Australia recorded a daily average of 0.05 deaths per million people, compared to 0.35 in New Zealand.
Peter Collignon, an infectious disease expert and microbiologist at the Australian National University Medical School, said it was still too early to use deaths as a basis for comparison, mainly because it typically takes some time for a person to die from the virus.
“The trouble with using deaths is that it is still too early to tell,” Professor Collignon told Fact Check.
“The best measure is going to be in a few month’s time when they look at deaths in winter and compare how that exceeds normal winters.”
What about testing rates?
In proportional terms, New Zealand has generally been testing more than Australia.
On April 15, New Zealand was testing at about four times the rate of Australia, with 0.8 tests per 1000 people, compared to about 0.2 in Australia.
This raises the possibility that higher testing could result in higher numbers of confirmed cases, potentially giving the false impression that eradication efforts have been more successful in Australia.
Another way to illustrate this point is to examine the number of tests required to find one positive case of COVID-19.
On April 15, for example, New Zealand was conducting 65 tests for every confirmed positive case.
In Australia, the rate was lower, with 59 tests conducted for every positive case detected.
In other words, New Zealand has been testing more, but finding fewer positive cases.
Professor Collignon said it was difficult to be definitive about testing because it depended on the methodology used, including the criteria applied to determine eligibility for testing.
More from the experts
Professor Collignon said Australia and New Zealand had both achieved “very similar” results suppressing the virus.
“One being better than the other is dependent on how you look at it,” he said.
“But I think that’s important because it means Australia has likely achieved the same results controlling infection as New Zealand, just in Australia with less lockdown measures and so not as much economic and social impacts — but still very significant restrictions.”
Professor Collignon said if you take the impact of cruise ships out, which accounted for about one-third of Australian cases, then Australia was clearly more successful at suppressing the virus than New Zealand.
Siouxsie Wiles, an infectious disease expert from the University of Auckland, said the numbers in New Zealand and Australia had been so low that comparisons such as Morrison’s were not particularly meaningful.
“It’s all in the noise,” Associate Professor Wiles said.
“This is a long game and we need to wait and see how it plays out over the year rather than making bold claims about who has responded in the ‘best’ way right now.”
Associate Professor Cox said he believed New Zealand was now in a good position to eliminate the virus following the lockdown measures it imposed.
“The lockdown has been vital to controlling this disease in New Zealand and we are even in a good position to eliminate it,” Associate Professor Cox said.
Principal researcher: Josh Gordon, economics and finance editor, with Caitlin Cassidy.
- Prime Minister Scott Morrison, media conference, April 16
- Georgia Hitch, “Prime Minister Scott Morrison flags easing of coronavirus restrictions in near future”, ABC News Online, April 29, 2020.
- Lucia Stein, “Jacinda Ardern announces New Zealand will relax coronavirus lockdown to level three next week”, ABC News Online, April 20, 2020
- Peta Fuller, “New Zealand’s level four coronavirus lockdown has been strict. Here are some of the differences with Australia”, ABC News Online, April 20, 2020
- Australian Government, Department of Health, Social distancing for coronavirus (COVID-19)
- New Zealand Government, Physical Distancing
- New Zealand Government, COVID-19 Alert System
- Grant Duncan, “New Zealand’s coronavirus elimination strategy has united a nation. Can that unity outlast lockdown?”, The Conversation, April 15, 2020
- Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Joe Hasell, Our world in data, Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) – Statistics and Research, University of Oxford
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Situation update worldwide, as of 29 April 2020
- Johns Hopkins University and Medicine, Coronavirus Resource Centre
- RMIT ABC Fact Check, “Scott Morrison says the coronavirus curve is flattening. Are we turning the corner? ABC News Online, April 3, 2020