Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Government says move to level 3.3 ‘unlikely’; expert predicts Auckland cases to peak

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Auckland wakes today to what will likely be the last week of New Zealand’s longest lockdown, with this week marking the hundredth day since the lockdown began in August.

Cabinet will today consider whether the city could soon move to alert level 3.3, but the Government is likely to urge Aucklanders to be patient, potentially skipping 3.3 entirely in favour of heading straight to the traffic light system next week.

This could be the last big alert-level decision for anywhere in the country, because next Monday, November 29, Cabinet will consider moving the whole country away from the alert-level system to the new traffic light system.

Once in the traffic light system, lockdowns, if they happen at all, are expected to be rare and more localised.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said today that there was a “clear path” for Auckland getting back to a much more normal way of living.

Her message to hairdressers and cafe and restaurant owners was: “Plan for the 29th,” when Cabinet would meet to decide when to move to the traffic light system.

Vaccination rates reaching 90 per cent coverage in many parts of the city was making a huge difference. In comparison to when the country went into lockdown, in mid-August, the vaccination rate was about 20 per cent, she told Breakfast.

The Government wanted to move to the traffic light system with community Covid case numbers that were as low as possible.

Asked about when hospitality businesses in Auckland may open, Ardern was quick to respond.

“Plan for the 29th (of November). We’ve already given that certainty – the 29th is the decision day for us around which levels parts of the country will go into.

“But Auckland already know – they’re going into red. That means that hospitality reopens – cafes, restaurants, it means gyms, it means all those close personal services everyone has missed. They all reopen.”

Ardern asked people to use vaccination certificates and urged people to download theirs and “get ready”.

“Business – my strong signal would be, we are reopening.”

Ardern acknowledged that other countries were starting to see second waves of Covid infection.

The thing that was making a difference was vaccination rates, she said.

“Every day of vaccines makes a difference.”

On managed isolation and quarantine restrictions, she acknowledged the potential risk of lifting all restrictions at the border.

“We know the outbreak we’ve had now – that came from one case overseas. So you do still need to have some measures in place.

“MIQ can and will change … because the most difficult thing at the moment is the bottle-neck caused by using facilities.”

The next big shift would be for people to stay at home and self-isolate.

“Self-isolation will become the new normal for people coming back home into New Zealand.”

Ardern said new cases coming from overseas still had the potential to result in further Covid-19 outbreaks.

“We don’t want to be Europe. We don’t want to be in a situation where we lose control.

“We always have maintained that the way we will manage Covid will be about managing control and protecting people so we can have as much freedom here as possible.”

She said that would ultimately allow for more people from overseas to return to New Zealand during these times.

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A spokesman for the Prime Minister suggested last night that a move to 3.3 would be unlikely.

“Cabinet checks in on alert level settings regularly. Given the recent move to step 2 and the reopening of schools last week and the move to the new traffic light system soon after November 29 it’s unlikely there will be any further changes to steps made in between time,” the spokesman said.

Ardern said last week that she’s expecting the move to the traffic light system “soon after” November 29.

The move to greater freedoms is not universally supported, with Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson coming out on Sunday against the proposal to relax the Auckland boundary in December, saying it was too risky.

The picture is mixed as New Zealand contemplates a move to greater freedoms, with the return of travel to and from Auckland and much larger mass gatherings allowed under the new traffic light settings.

'Recipe for more transmission'

Pacific health leader Dr Collin Tukuitonga says it makes sense for Auckland to stay at alert level 3.2 to reduce the risk of more community Covid transmission before the traffic light system comes into play.

Speaking to TVNZ’s Breakfast today, he said the danger of moving to alert level 3.3 was that lesser restrictions means more activity and more people gathering – particularly indoors, where transmission rates are higher.

“That’s always a recipe for more transmission,” he said.

“You do, in fact, increase the spread both within Auckland, but also beyond the places where the cases are reported from now.”

Tukuitonga said if we get the vaccination rates among young Māori in particular up, he would not feel as worried about moving out of the current alert level.

Tukuitonga said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the vaccination rate coverage in Auckland.

Despite Waitematā and Counties Manukau district health boards still slightly behind the 90 per cent double dose rate, he said the vaccination rates were encouraging.

A lot of that boost in vaccinations seen in vulnerable communities – particularly among Pacific peoples – was to do with Pasifika and Māori community leaders, church leaders and local groups stepping up to run vaccination drive campaigns during lockdown.

Tukuitonga went on to say that had Māori and Pacific communities- the most vulnerable to Covid – been prioritised for vaccination, we would not be in the position we are in now.

149 cases yesterday

On Sunday, the Ministry of Health reported 149 new cases. Most were in Auckland, but a small number popped up in Northland, the Waikato, the Bay of Plenty and Canterbury.

Combined with the 172 cases published on Saturday, which included a Wellington case, it appears Covid has reached most parts of the North Island and isolated cases are now popping up in the South Island too.

But many cases outside of Auckland still have a clear link to the main outbreak in the city. High vaccination rates appear to be keeping the cases that leave Auckland from finding a foothold and themselves turning into outbreaks.

Alert level 3.3 is highly permissive. It allows hospitality venues to open indoor dining, with up to 50 people allowed indoors.

Facilities like cinemas, casinos, and theatres can open with a limit of 50 people in a “defined space”, wearing face coverings and 2-metre physical distancing.

Outdoor gatherings get bigger, with 50 people allowed.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said he was not in favour of moving Auckland to alert 3.3, saying those settings could “really accelerate transmission”, given that it would allow people to congregate in more indoor settings.

“I would be much more concerned about 3.3 that has people going into a large number of indoor environments,” Baker said.

Baker said recent trends in the outbreak were actually somewhat positive.

“It’s good to see that the number of cases appears to have stabilised over the last week at under 200 [a day] on average.

“The exponential curve we were on – we’re not on it now, we appear to be on some sort of plateau,” Baker said.

But he warned this plateauing stage might turn into a steady increase in case numbers if Auckland was hastily moved to level 3.3.

Baker said that it would be better to hold Auckland at current settings in anticipation of a move to the traffic light system, which would likely happen the week after next.

This would mean most people heading to indoor spaces (with some exceptions) would need to be vaccinated.

Baker said a compromise could allow some businesses, like hairdressers to “trial” vaccine passes this week, effectively moving some businesses into the traffic light system early.

“They’ve talked about maybe doing a trial – that’s a sensible approach,” Baker said.

The Government has said the new traffic light system is more suitable for managing outbreaks where there is a degree of community transmission in a highly vaccinated population.

Te Pūnaha Matatini modeller Shaun Hendy said the situation was “looking better for Auckland” ahead of the decision.

The “R” rate, which measures how much the virus has been spreading had been “falling over the last few weeks, which suggests the vaccine rollout is starting to get ahead of the outbreak in Auckland at least”.

He said case numbers may soon peak in Auckland.

He said a move to 3.3 was a “big one” because indoor hospitality was a “clear risk, and arguably less safe than opening under the traffic light system”.

“At this stage, it might be prudent to wait a week until we transition to the new system to avoid confusion and taking on extra risk,” Hendy said.

Vaccination levels have increased dramatically during this lockdown.

In the months since lockdown began on August 17, almost five million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been administered. As of Sunday, 91 per cent of the eligible population had received one dose of the vaccine, and 83 per cent had received both doses.

New Zealand has gone from being one of the least vaccinated countries in the developed world to one of the more vaccinated countries.

But there are still fears this is not enough. Davidson told TVNZ’s Q&A over the weekend that she believed the Auckland boundary, scheduled to come down on December 15, should be kept in place “until we have equitably high vaccination rates for Māori, and until we have regional health systems that are prepared, and until we have properly tested and refined the traffic light system”.

Just 63 per cent of Māori are fully vaccinated.

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