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Auckland could remain in alert level 3 for months as it wrestles with the deadly Delta variant following the Government decision to move the city out of level 4 lockdown, an expert warns.
And another expert says the move to level 3 was a political call, rather than a health decision.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern believes New Zealand can still eliminate the virus under level 3 so long as people stick to their bubbles, despite cases numbers remaining stubbornly high.
“Caution,” Ardern said was the keyword as she announced Auckland would move to alert level 3 for at least two weeks from midnight on Tuesday.
Ardern says so far the 200-odd tests from the Hauraki area – where three cases tested positive on Sunday- have come back negative but there are more to come.
She thanked everyone who had turned out to get a test.
There had been about 400 tests so far.
She did not have a full breakdown but expected the students in the class with the infected children would have been tested.
Ardern said the man who had been transported from Mt Eden prison had come into contact with Covid over the course of getting to the place where he had been bailed.
“We know how he got it and we know who he got it from.” It was still to be determined whether any rules had been broken.
People who had been in prison or in managed isolation were safe because they had been in quarantine in a Covid-free place.
Ardern believes New Zealand has “the potential to hit 90 (per cent)” vaccination mark over the next couple of weeks.
That would give the country more freedoms over Christmas.
Ardern said New Zealand was continuing with its “stamp it out” strategy. Several outbreaks had been dealt with at level 3.
“Level 3 still offers very tight restrictions.” It was incredibly important that Aucklanders didn’t treat level 3 as a chance to go and visit people – “please keep your bubbles tight”.
Asked if a 90 per cent rate would mean no more level 4, Ardern said modellers had found high vaccination levels would make a difference to the restrictions. Once that report was ready she would share it.
But she would not be drawn on the exact rate of vaccination when the country could see less restrictions.
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told director general of health told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking that it would have been nice for the case numbers to be lower, but they were all connected to current cases or were in managed isolation, so they were comfortable announcing the alert level change for Auckland.
Despite that, he said of the alert level change: “You lose a bit of sleep over them.”
He said one of the households affected lived on the same street as another household now infected with Covid-19.
Bloomfield said they were still going to “go really hard” to fight Covid. This time, we have vaccinations on our side.
Put to him several times that elimination has not worked, Bloomfield said: “Well, we’re not back to zero”.
“Yeah, but that’s what elimination is,” Hosking interrupted.
Bloomfield replied: “Well elimination is not tolerating the virus and that’s what we’ve done for 20 months.”
Hosking: “And in not tolerating the virus, you need to get rid of the virus and to get rid of the virus you need some zeros. You haven’t got zeros, you’re not going to get zeros. Elimination doesn’t work.”
Bloomfield: “Just to be clear, that is absolutely still our aim.”
Hosking: “You can have an aim ’til you’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t work. Why don’t you just simply admit what everybody can see, it hasn’t worked, that’s life. Let’s move on.
“It’s working,” Bloomfield told Hosking.
“For a Delta outbreak, those are very low numbers,” Bloomfield said.
He pointed out that across the Tasman, Covid numbers were still extremely high.
“All of New Zealand would love for us to go back to zero. The aim is still to go back to zero.”
Bloomfield said there were aspects of his advice given to the Government yesterday that was not taken up by politicians.
“Most of it was just small stuff. My advice is not always taken,” the director-general of health said.
Bloomfield said officials are now looking closely to results in other countries – namely the US – who will be starting to offer vaccinations for children under 12 years old.
He said New Zealand would be moving to offer that vaccination to children aged 5 to 11 years soon as soon as possible.
Bishop backs elimination
National Covid response spokesperson Chris Bishop said there would be a lot of Aucklanders relieved the alert levels were moving, but it also meant 300,000 more Aucklanders would be back to work from Wednesday morning and that presented a risk.
He said the government had advice we could still stamp it out in level 3 so we had to hope that was the case.
“We really are at a tipping point.”
Bishop said if the numbers continued to climb the government could either move to level 4 or get the vaccination rates up and accept it in the community.
Bishop said the elimination strategy was the best option for New Zealand so far because once you abandoned it, it was gone forever.
On MIQ, Bishop said there were really good reasons to get back to New Zealand and there were not quite so good as reasons and the government needed to be able to prioritise these so people who were overstaying in other countries or needed to come back for a family emergency were given a spot over those wanting to come back for a holiday.
He admitted no system was perfect, but there were 10,000 people trying to get back who could not get an MIQ spot so there had to be a better way.
Kiwi in Sydney Penny Smith told ZB has been trying to get home with her husband Mike. Smith said her life is in limbo at the moment and she’s living in a hotel. Her car, furniture and cat were in New Zealand but they were stuck in Sydney.
“Feeling like you’ve been looked out of your own country when you are fully vaccinated…”
They had booked to come back in September but cannot get a MIQ spot. She said she was literally shaking after trying to get a spot yesterday when the bookings were opened up.
Smith said there genuine kiwis wanting to come back home and been forgotten about among all the holidaymakers looking to come home for Christmas.
Experts are split on the alert level move, with most agreeing the city is on a “knife-edge” in terms of eliminating the virus or alternatively seeing cases shoot up again.
Monday’s alert level decision has been regarded as the Government’s toughest of the pandemic.
It had to balance high daily case numbers – 22 on Monday – in Auckland despite it being in the longest lockdown yet, with an increasingly restless population and business community.
There have also been strong calls, including from the Māori Pandemic Group, to hold off lowering alert levels until vaccination rates were higher in vulnerable groups.
• LISTEN LIVE TO NEWSTALK ZB:
7.35am: Kiwi in Sydney Penny Smith on trying to get home
Level 3 move a political decision: Expert
AucklandProfessor Des Gorman told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking that he believed the Government’s decision to move Auckland out of level 4 was a political decision more than a health decision.
Gorman said the way the pandemic had been managed was through fear.
“Our attitude to Covid is completely out of whack,” he said, compared to any other health condition.
He acknowledged that we were dealing with Delta – a highly contagious variant.
But he said the way authorities had managed this latest outbreak was somewhat slack – pinpointing that the contact-tracing system, for example, was determined by people’s honesty and memory.
“Obviously the Government’s decided that public opinion is shifting and they needed to get in front of it to be seen to be leading that opinion, rather than being driven by that opinion,” Gorman said.
“My view is that it’s been politicised from the get-go and that health has had some input, but that ultimately the decisions have been political – and that’s been true around the world.”
Gorman said in New Zealand’s situationwe had seen a shift – from a zero tolerance for cases, to a zero tolerance for deaths.
“And I think that’s going to shift even further still.”
Gorman said we – and the world – now had a mortal fear of Covid and dying from Covid.
But there were many other health conditions, delayed cancer treatments, surgeries and mental health issues that were not being seen to as a result.
Gorman said the vaccination rate needed to reach higher than 80 per cent for life to go back to normal.
But he estimated that before the vaccination rate reached up to 80 to 90 per cent, the public would get restless and would no longer have an appetite for hard lockdowns.
A calculated risk
Professor Michael Plank said moving to level 3 was a calculated risk by the Government but it was really important people didn’t take it as a signal that virus has passed.
The way the virus spread through the community was people having contact with their family and friends.
Plank told TVNZ it was really hard to ring-fence the virus and stop it jumping into a new household and spreading within that household.
Plank said moving North Waikato into bespoke level 4 was buying time to find out the extent of the spread and did not rule out the border being further extended.
In level 2, the virus could spread more quickly and could transmit through schools and other parents and teachers who may have been out and about in the community and travelling around the region, he told TVNZ.
Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett says many businesses were currently drowning in debt and would be extremely relieved to move back to level 3 from midnight.
However many won’t be operating anywhere near 100 per cent. They will have to be innovative, Barnett said.
Some businesses will have supply chain constraints, and the Government should provide a flexible environment in level 3. He said the thought of moving in and out of alert levels will also be disruptive if that happens. He thinks half of Auckland’s businesses will operate at about 50 per cent in level 3.
The business chamber surveyed Auckland businesses and found 86 per cent said their wellbeing was below 5 out of 10, he told The AM Show.
Regarding the Prime Minister’s directive that over-65s who have not been vaccinated should stay at home – Barnett said there would be a huge conversation with employers about jabs and jobs, as was happening elsewhere in the world.
Level 3 will see some freedoms return, including contactless takeaways and deliveries, businesses able if they can do so safely, increased outdoor activities and some students returning to schools.
However Ardern, accompanied by Bloomfield, made it very clear it was only a slight adjustment to current settings.
“Level 3 is not open up,” Ardern said.
“Level 3 is still stamp it out.”
While daily case numbers had been hovering around 20 for the past week, Ardern said level 4 had “done what it was designed to do” and created a ring-fence around the outbreak, suppressing the number of unlinked cases.
There was “strong confidence” they were contained and there was no widespread community transmission, Bloomfield said.
This was despite three new cases announced on Sunday night in the small settlement of Whakatīwai south of the lockdown boundary, linked to a prisoner who had left Auckland while on remand.
Also supporting the move were increasing vaccination levels, with Auckland approaching 80 per cent of its eligible population having had their first dose, Bloomfield said.
The city was on track to surpass 90 per cent by mid-October, he said.
These reasons were why he was confident Auckland would not need to return to level 4, even if case numbers rose again.
Looking further out Ardern said “90 per cent plus” would help lower alert levels further.
“That’s the range we want to see people aspiring to. That’s the level where we might have fewer restrictions.”
Covid had been eliminated at level 3 before, and the Government was confident it would happen again, Ardern said.
In August last year Auckland spent just over two weeks at level 3 to contain an outbreak that grew to 131 cases over that time.
However, epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said it was much more difficult to do so with the highly infectious Delta variant.
At level 3 Baker said stamping out the virus would be much more difficult, and there was a risk the country would move into “suppression mode” as in New South Wales, remaining at level 3 settings for months.
“It is possible to eliminate under level 3 settings, and we do have rising vaccine coverage.
“There is a lot of data not released so for all we know the virus might have stopped transmitting and we are just seeing the end of it.
“The main thing now is for contact tracers to really get on top of it and go after those last chains.”
Te Pūnaha Matatini Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said it was a calculated risk moving Auckland to alert level 3 and there was a very real chance of returning to level 4 within weeks.
“It relies to a large extent on people doing the right thing now.”
Plank said people meeting up with friends and family members not in their bubble was the biggest risk.
University of Auckland’s School of Population Health Professor Rod Jackson said it was a”sensible” decision.
Jackson said level 3 was basically level 4 but with takeout.
“When you leave home you should treat everyone was if they have Covid and as if you have Covid.”
He said everything New Zealand was going to do between now and Christmas was “stop gap measures” until enough of the population was vaccinated.
Jackson said he didn’t think any of the country should move down to alert level 1 until enough people were vaccinated.
Covid modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said it was a risky decision with the outbreak “not completely under control” – as evidenced by the prisoner case.
“It is too hard to call [if there will be a rise in cases], we really are on a knife-edge.”
While New South Wales had seen a rise in cases at similar level 3 settings, Hendy said our cases were at a lower starting point and contact tracers could still get on top of them.
Earlier, Māori Pandemic Group spokeswoman Professor Sue Crengle called for an extension to level 4 and expansion into Waikato, and level 3 for much of the upper North Island due to cases creeping outside Tāmaki Makaurau.
The group’s concern was for vulnerable communities with still low vaccination rates and a risk the cases could signal a wider outbreak.
Ardern said they were confident the cases were contained, and they had instituted a “bespoke” level 4 border for the affected area.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff welcomed the decision but urged Aucklanders to follow the rules and get vaccinated.
“Following the guidelines, as well as getting vaccinated in large numbers, has helped reduce transmission and enabled us to move down alert levels.
“Moving further down the alert levels depends on us keeping up this effort.”
Alongside the move to level 3, the rest of the country would shift from Delta 2 to normal level 2 settings, which included increasing gathering sizes from 50 to 100.
Wharekawa Marae Trustees chairman Tipa Compain said people in the community were concerned and worried. They were worried about their children and older people and also how Covid managed to get into the area, he told TVNZ. Two new vaccination areas were also being set up in the North Waikato area from today and they were encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Compain said local leaders on the ground had been working diligently with its local families and its communities since the announcement of Covid level 4 in Auckland.
“There’s been efforts to look after the family and the community and obviously this incident hasn’t helped.”
He said the testing centre was very busy yesterday with 477 tests carried out.
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