Auckland is in for New Zealand’s longest ever alert level 4 lockdown, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Government decided yesterday that Auckland’s Covid restrictions would continue to be set at alert level 4 until at least midnight on Tuesday September 21, meaning the city will have spent 35 days under level 4 restrictions – two days longer than the original lockdown.
But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered some hope. Cabinet has agreed “in principle” that Auckland will shift down alert levels next Wednesday, pending a review at Cabinet on Monday. The Government is now racing to test swathes of Auckland to ensure there is no undetected spread in the community.
There are two catches to the plan: the first is the Government has decided that the rest of the country will stay living under alert level 2 restrictions, despite having no community cases.
The Government has also made no decision about whether the rest of the country will head to alert level 1 next week – or whether it will stay at alert level 2, even if Auckland itself moves down alert levels.
The second catch is the Government has drawn a line under the support it will offer businesses, despite growing calls for more help.
Last Friday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced additional rounds of the resurgence support payment of $1500 plus $400 for each employee. A third round of the wage subsidy will be open from Friday.
Ardern defended this decision yesterday, saying that the Government put more financial support in place this lockdown than it did during the last lockdown.
“Over the course of a month in alert level 4 last year, an eligible business with 10 employees would have received about $23,000 in support, whereas this outbreak it will be about $35,000,” Ardern said.
All eyes have turned to 17 mystery cases that have popped up in the last fortnight, which cannot be linked to the wider outbreak.
Ardern has softened her criteria for moving Auckland out of alert level 4. Previously, the Government had been focused on tracking these cases down and linking them to the outbreak.
Yesterday she said the focus would shift to using testing to ensure that the mystery cases were not indicative of wider spread in the community. This testing would be concentrated in suburbs where mystery cases suggested there could be spread.
The testing would be focused on seven suburbs: Mt Eden, Massey, Māngere, Favona, Papatoetoe, Ōtara and Manurewa.
“I would encourage everyone in those areas to remain especially vigilant for symptoms,” Ardern said.
Te Pūnaha Matatini and Auckland University modeller Shaun Hendy said the extension was “unwelcome” but not “unexpected”.
“We’ve seen kicks in the tail of each of our other major outbreaks.”
“It is certainly possible that another week at alert level 4 will be sufficient when looking at the low number of unlinked cases and exposure events, but it will depend on some luck, good case management and a strong community response,” he said.
Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury Professor Michael Plank, who has worked for MBIE on mathematical modelling of Covid-19, said the alert level move was the right one.
He said there was a “realistic possibility” that the outbreak was under control, “provided the number of unlinked cases and cases infectious in the community both trend downwards over the week ahead”.
“A crucial factor in building confidence the outbreak is contained over the next week is community testing. It’s absolutely essential that anyone with any symptoms get tested immediately,” he said.
National backed the extension, but said the government only had itself to blame for keeping Auckland in lockdown.
“Auckland is in lockdown and New Zealand is in level 2 for two reasons: we have one of the world’s slowest vaccine rollouts in the world, and the Government did not prepare or plan for Delta,” said leader Judith Collins.
“The Prime Minister spent most of (yesterday’s) press conference telling people to go and get vaccinated, which must be infuriating to the thousands of New Zealanders who have been keen to get vaccinated since the start of the year but who haven’t been able to due to one of the developed world’s slowest vaccine rollout,” she said.
Act leader David Seymour said the latest lockdown showed the Government needed to change its strategy in the Delta era.
“You have to ask: is the strategy of locking down and snuffing it out to go back to normal sustainable anymore?” Seymour said.
“We’ve had a strategy that has worked somewhat and has run out of runway, we need to consider what a new strategy would look like,” he said.
Seymour said Auckland should go into a “holding pattern” that would look something like level 2 or 3 until vaccination rates got high enough to abandon lockdowns.
Ardern agreed with this in part, saying vaccination would eventually lead to a change in strategy.
“We will listen to the experts, as we have all the way through, and their advice on what phase we will move into thereafter will look like,” Ardern said.
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