As the Government signals a rejigging of alert level settings two of the country’s top Covid experts are urging Auckland should not be rushed out of lockdown.
The warning comes after Auckland reported 13 new cases on Thursday, with three yet to be linked to the outbreak, including another patient at Middlemore Hospital.
The new cases also included a truck driver who tested positive after crossing Auckland’s alert level 4 border.
There were also five cases from the previous day that had created exposure events.
“Lifting the restrictions is like lifting a wet blanket, and those embers underneath, the unlinked cases, could begin to ignite and expand rapidly,” epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said.
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While 13 cases is much lower than the outbreak peak of 83, that peak was nearly three weeks ago. In the past two weeks case numbers have fluctuated between 11 and 33, with a very slight downward trend.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signalled Auckland would likely move down to level 3 restrictions next Wednesday, though Cabinet would be making its final decision on Monday.
Baker said the “long tail” didn’t show level 4 was not working, just that under Delta the small weaknesses were more greatly exposed, such as with essential workers, people leaving their homes to get supplies and at hospitals – all sites of recent cases.
Working in the city’s favour though was the “incredible work” being done in areas like community testing and boosting vaccination levels.
“I think we really are at the brink of stamping this outbreak out and it is possible under current settings. And those vaccination rates will soon be at levels they will be having an effect.
“The question is if we move too fast and don’t stamp it out completely there could be a huge downside, meaning we might be in level 2 and level 3 all summer, like what they are experiencing in New South Wales.
“If we lose control of Auckland it will affect the entire country.”
Covid modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said this “long tail” was not unexpected and had occurred in previous outbreaks.
“What is concerning is that it’s Delta, and the tail still contains relatively high numbers.”
While the case numbers had plateaued, there was a steady decline in unlinked cases and exposure events.
“The cases of concern have dropped quite a bit, so there is some cause for optimism.”
Still, Hendy said a move down alert levels for Auckland from Wednesday was looking like a risky decision.
“If we really wanted to play it safe we would stick at alert level 4 a couple more weeks, however it has been a long period and people need to see some progress so they might be prepared to take a risk at this stage.
“Moving to level 3 definitely comes with the risk of needing to go back to level 4, but it is unlikely we would see an explosion of cases.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern poured cold water on any hopes of a move to level 1 outside Auckland next week, stating such a move could not occur while there were any Delta cases in the community.
However, she said if Cabinet decided to adopt its in-principle decision to move Auckland down to level 3 from midnight Tuesday, the rest of the country could shift from the more restrictive “Delta 2” settings to the original level 2.
This shift would allow gathering sizes to increase to 100 from 50, which many hospitality businesses have said was too small to be economical.
Ardern said aside from compulsory QR scanning, alert level 1 settings would remain the same following the Delta outbreak.
Ardern also said the Government was doing a wider review of alert level settings factoring in higher vaccination rates.
Thursday’s cases took the outbreak total to 996, including 536 active community cases. There are 10 cases over the past fortnight not yet linked to the outbreak.
The truck driver testing positive comes as today all permitted travellers across the Auckland boundary must show proof they have been tested once a week.
National Party Covid spokesman Chris Bishop said this case showed why rapid antigen testing was needed daily at the Auckland boundary for essential workers.
On Wednesday 100,000 rapid test kits arrived in the country and will be used at international airports and Middlemore Hospital, but not the Auckland boundary.
“Weekly testing for essential workers crossing the Auckland boundary is just not good enough,” Bishop said
“Delta moves so quickly that a worker could spend six days with Covid-19 and infect potentially thousands of people in that time before they have to go and get a nasal PCR or saliva PCR test.”
Minister for Māori Development Willie Jackson says he is proud to see the new vaccination buses rolling out and says it is an initiative that will help Māori, Pacific and working-class people who cannot otherwise get to a vaccination clinic.
“Our community is responding,” he told TVNZ’s Breakfast programme.
Speaking about the low vaccination rates among Māori, Jackson said there are different factors at play he acknowledged people need to remember.
“You’re not comparing apples with apples.”
Among some Māori, for example, he said there remained an ongoing resentment against the Government – whether it be Labour or National – and a mistrust associated with the Crown.
Some people, therefore, were very anti-vaccinations, he told Breakfast.
Despite that, Jackson said yesterday’s roll-out of the vaccination buses was a great thing.
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