Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: NZ’s lockdown continues until at least midnight Friday; Auckland’s for longer

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New Zealand will stay in alert level 4 lockdown until at least midnight on Friday, and Auckland will stay locked down until at least midnight on Tuesday next week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement at the Beehive this afternoon.

Cabinet decided to keep all of New Zealand in lockdown until 11.59pm this Friday, she said. That would allow additional data on how contained the outbreak was likely to be.

The decision would be reviewed on Friday, and an update given in the afternoon. That would depend on wastewater results, and where any further cases were found.

Ardern said they had not yet decided whether regions would only go down to level 3 once the decision was made to move out of level 4 – or whether they could move down levels further immediately, but said caution would always be a factor.

In Auckland, Ardern said level 4 had to be at least a 14-day cycle.

The decision on Auckland’s lockdown will be reviewed on Monday next week.

Earlier today it was announced there are now 107 Covid cases in New Zealand, 99 of them in Auckland and eight in Wellington.

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Ardern said the longer period would allow time for more testing of known contacts, and wastewater results, as well as whether new cases had been in isolation throughout their infectious periods.

More than 14,000 contacts have now been identified. The vast majority are considered close contacts.

“Aucklanders will see this data and will know this two weeks is a given.”

She said the review of Auckland would determine whether the peak had been reached.

Ardern said more information and certainty was needed on where the contacts of cases had gone.

“But we do believe that is an appropriate check-in point.”

She said it also allowed a decent amount of time after the 48-hour travel period following the announcement of lockdown.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said his advice was for the two decisions that had been made.

'Boundary' work

Ardern said Cabinet discussed practical situations if different regions were at different levels – and what it would mean for movement between different regions.

The DPMC had been working on boundary options to help them decide on those regional splits.

PM said about 11 of the positive cases so far had been vaccinated.

“A large number would not have become eligible.”

Ardern said she would be watching to see if those people had transmitted to others.

Seven people were in hospital, and none were in ICU. The only Covid-19 case in ICU was the health worker who was flown from Fiji a couple of weeks ago.

On the Devonport tradie case, Ardern believed he could have been in the middle of the outbreak. Other cases had reported having symptoms before he had had them. He was not considered to be the link to the NSW traveller.

Bloomfield said more than 50 per cent of the positive cases were Pacific people. None were Māori.

'Stay home'

Ardern said Cabinet and the health officials remained confident about getting on top of the virus again.

“We just need to keep it up, ensure we are not in restrictions any longer than we need to be.”

She urged people to stay home, other than for essentials, and to wear a mask.

“To leave level 4 we need to follow [these rules] closely.”

She confirmed Parliament would be suspended for one week.

“Physically bringing MPs to Parliament does pose risk.”

She said ministers had been asked to appear before select committees this week, which would meet virtually.

She said to people who may be a contact to isolate and get others to do your shopping.

“If you need support, please ask for it.”

Ardern effectively ruled out allowing other types of shops to open.

That was the case even though some supermarkets had to close because they were locations of interest, or too many staff were close contacts.

Ardern said it was a matter of scale. Allowing butchers or bakers to open would increase the numbers out at work rather than at home.

She also urged people to get vaccinated.

“We are building a picture of the Delta spread.”

Ardern said re-testing of all staff at Crowne Plaza and the Jet Park facility had revealed no new clues as to how the virus got into the community.

Ardern said 108,000 tests had been taken in Auckland alone, a good representative sample. She thanked people for their perseverance in being tested.

Wastewater testing had returned positive only in Auckland and Wellington.

“With Delta, more certainty is needed.”

Delta's 'headstart'

She said the move to immediate lockdown was important because Delta had a headstart on us.

She said on current numbers, each case of Delta had transmitted it to six others. That needed to be less than 1.

Ardern said the more cautious approach of Delta meant there were more contacts. That meant there wouldn’t be the same certainty of reaching all those who needed to be.

Ardern held up a map of the places contacts had gone to, including several in the South Island.

Ardern said there were more than 100 contacts in the South Island, as far as was known.

She said almost 8000 people left Auckland during the 48-hour window to get home after the lockdown was announced.

Exposure events

Bloomfield said the big exposure events they were concerned about were two weeks ago this Saturday, so that fitted with the lockdown until midnight Friday.

He said the church event was the largest so far but that was not surprising given it had lasted for hours.

On the church, Bloomfield said engagement with church leaders was the best approach and both health and non-health people had been communicating with the church, including a zoom call last night.

He said there were very high testing results from the church attendees.

Elimination strategy

Ardern said the “go hard, go early” strategy last year was similar, and compared with the rest of the world it was short and sharp.

Ardern said the elimination strategy had worked for New Zealand before, and she believed it remained the right thing for New Zealand.

Asked when the elimination strategy would be reviewed, Ardern said the advice of the Skegg group had taken account of Delta. Elimination was the strategy but that would be looked at as vaccination rates rose.

It would depend on expert advice when the roadmap might start, and whether there would be some tolerance for Covid in the community once vaccination rates were high.

On Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s target of re-opening borders after the 70-80 per cent vaccination rate target and whether that would affect the bubble, Ardern said that would not happen while New Zealand was still vaccinating.

Testing centres

On systems being down in testing centres, Bloomfield said it would cause a delay in turn-around times but they would try and make up for lost time.

On delays in getting results back, Bloomfield said that was mainly in Auckland and for GP clinics and places that did not use the system.

He said more tests were being processed more quickly than in the last outbreak.

Bloomfield said most of the emerging cases had a link to existing cases and a number of those today were associated with the AOG church service.

All the Wellington cases were linked to others, and all but one had been in isolation throughout.

In Wellington, Bloomfield said the new cases were household contacts of those who had initially tested positive.

Of the University of Auckland student who travelled to Wellington, he said there was a second student but it was unclear whether it was connected to the same location.

The students from the hall of residence were all being followed up.

Ardern said while person-to-person links were not always being made quickly, location links were.

Crowne Plaza

On the investigation into the atrium at the Crowne Plaza, Ardern said had been debate around the exercise area but the person in question had not visited that area. That left the atrium, which was separated from the MIQ.

Officials had located all but two of the people in the atrium at the time.

“We are keeping open the lines of investigation at this time.”

That included looking at all movements and footage, and staff.

“But there is nothing to report at this point.’

Bloomfield said all staff had been tested at least once but one, who was being followed up.

Asked why the Crowne Plaza was still open, Ardern said it was not yet established what the issue was, but extra precautions were being looked at while it was investigated.

Contact tracing

Bloomfield said the oubreak was “a stretch” on the contact tracing system.

Today, extra call centre capacity had been brought on, to do the follow-up calls on those isolating. All surge capacity had been called in, and government departments were now bringing in extra people.

Ardern said the public health authorities were triaging those considered the highest priorities.

On the transTasman bubble, Ardern said she stood by the decisions that were made at the time they were made. But as the virus evolved, so did the response.

On online learning for school students during lockdown, Ardern said more plans were expected on Wednesday from Education and Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins.

Experts respond

Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said it was becoming clear New Zealand was dealing with a cluster reaching towards the upper limit of expectations when it was detected in Auckland nearly a week ago.

“This does mean we will likely see alert level 4 held in place for at least several weeks more in the Auckland region,” said Hendy, of Te Pūnaha Matatini.

“For the rest of the country we will have to wait until later in the week to see if they remain clear, in which case, an alert level shift could be considered on Friday.

“In Wellington, where there are active cases, officials will need to rule out spread within the community to see consider an alert level shift.”

Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said keeping the whole of the country at alert level 4 until the weekend was “the right decision”.

“New Zealand is in the midst of a dangerous outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid-19 and the true extent of the outbreak is still uncertain,” he said.

“Although confirmed cases are so far restricted to Auckland and Wellington, close contacts have been identified all around the country including in the South Island.”

Plank, of Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury, said there could also be other contacts that haven’t been identified and some of these could still be in their incubation period.

“By Friday we will know more and a drop to Alert Level 3 is a realistic possibility for regions with no active cases.”

For Auckland, he said the week-long extension was “clearly necessary”, given the sheer number of cases and locations of interest in the city.

“At the moment, cases being reported were very likely infected prior to the lockdown, so we are still building a picture of how widely the virus spread before the outbreak was first detected.”

By the end of this week, he expected we’d start to see the impact of the lockdown on case numbers.

“At this stage we can begin to estimate the reproduction number – the average number of people an infected person passes the virus on to – during Alert Level 4,” he said.

“This will allow us to gauge how likely it is we’ll be able to eliminate the outbreak with current settings and how long that could take.”

Challenges for Auckland businesses

The extension of Level 4 in Auckland was widely expected but would still present big challenges to Auckland CBD businesses, Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck said.

“There are some very worried people around at the moment.”

Beck said consumer spending in downtown Auckland alone was likely down by tens of millions of dollars this lockdown – and that excluded the financial the events sector took.

She said people would return to the city and spend when lockdown eventually ended, but reviving the city’s fortunes would take a while.

“It takes a little while for people to come back. It’s hard to switch on and switch off.”

Beck said downtown Auckland’s overall economic prognosis was still good, because financial services and other sectors could get by on staff working from home.

“The badly-affected are a relatively small sector of the city economy.”

But for the events, hospitality, accommodation and retail businesses, some tumultuous times were ahead, she said.

Health system

Bloomfield said while there was a certain amount of trained ICU staff and ICU beds, it was possible to train other staff to manage people on ventilators. All DHBs had been doing that.

Elsewhere, health systems had scaled back because of the lockdown. Some DHBs were looking at re-starting elective work.

On Parliament

On suspending Parliament, Ardern said it was a balance of safety. She said last lockdown the epidemic select committee was set up, but this time round all select committees would be able to question ministers, rather than only that committee.

Ardern said that could provide even more scutiny than Parliament’s one-hour long question time.

Locations of interest

New locations of interest have been added by the Ministry of Health.

So far 13,230 contacts have been identified with less than half – 6773 – contacted by public health staff and self isolating.

The majority of the 13,230 contacts are close contacts and the number is expected to rise throughout the day as records are fully processed.

The Ministry of Health is still investigating how Covid was transferred from the New South Wales returnee at the Crowne Plaza into the community and is focusing on an open walkway while the case was in the lobby.

The public walkway is separated from the plaza by a perspex shield standing only about seven feet high.

Of the six people who walked through the walkway while the index case was in the lobby, four have been identified. Three have tested negative and one person is in the process of getting a test. Police are helping to identify the remaining two people.

The index case has been genomically linked to three other positive cases who were in a family bubble staying in the room next door at the MIQ facility in central Auckland.

As a result of the link between those cases, officials quickly put in place post-departure day five testing for returnees who were in the Crowne Plaza, and who were on the same floor and whose stay over-lapped with the infectious period of that original case.

Yesterday, more than 17,000 Covid tests were taken across Auckland – the biggest day at its community testing centres so far.

Some 11,000 were taken at community testing centres and around 6,000 at general practice and urgent care clinics.

There were also 35,766 tests processed across New Zealand.

There are 16 community testing centres running across Auckland this afternoon including a new site at Pukekohe.

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