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

Auckland wakes up 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.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister suggested 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.

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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