Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Auckland officially in longest ever lockdown, but there is hope

By Thomas Coughlan

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Aucklanders need to be vaccinated by the end of the week, says an immunologist who believes New Zealanders "can't escape" Covid-19 because it's changing so much.

Immunologist Graham Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute, said New Zealand couldn't survive without Auckland working and that was concerning. Speaking to the AM Show, he said Auckland needed to be vaccinated now by the end of the week.

"We really need to get you guys vaccinated 100 per cent."

He said the virus had gone underground and "we are chasing our tails now".

The Delta virus could hide in domestic animals and at some point, New Zealand needed to learn to deal with it.

"We can't escape the virus, it's changing so much."

Epidemiologists are modellers and could only work on historic data, while immunologists worked on how to address viruses.

Le Gros said Delta had found its way in and was going to keep popping up.

He said lockdowns were exhausting and no society could go through multiple lockdowns.

"Major societal pressures are underway and economic pressures - and when you do your modelling you've got to put that into the model too. At which point do you start worrying about all the cancer death and the other socially induced deaths and all the alcoholism and things like that," he said.

As an immunologist, he understood how infectious diseases interact with the immune system and what the virus would be doing in six months time.

He said New Zealand should be trying to get 80 to 90 per cent of the population vaccinated - even with just one jab - to give New Zealand a really good shot.

Longest ever lockdown

Two new locations of interest have been released by the Ministry of Health this morning.

They are the Māngere Pharmacy, Māngere Town Centre, 93 Bader Drive on Saturday from 11am-11.15am and the SuperValue Flatbush, at 8/130 Dawson Road, Clover Park, last Thursday from 2.07pm to 2.15pm.

Auckland is in for New Zealand's longest ever alert level 4 lockdown, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this morning that Auckland could move to alert level 3 next week, even with unlinked community Covid cases.

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. Ardern told TVNZ's Breakfast that mystery Covid cases don't necessarily need to be linked before Auckland moves out of level 4.

All the cases are genomically linked but in a handful of cases they have not been able to find where the infection link came from.

Testing around seven key suburbs in Auckland would help. These suburbs are: Mt Eden, Massey, Māngere, Favona, Papatoetoe, Ōtara and Manurewa.

So far those suburbs had been "amazing" and they wanted to keep testing rates high for the next seven days.

If more suburbs needed surveillance testing people would be notified this week. Clusters will also be tightly managed - ensuring contacts of cases weren't causing other cases.
People needed to keep staying home to limit risk.

One person should do each household's shopping - ideally that person would have been vaccinated, Ardern said.

And she called for people to keep getting their jab, especially in Auckland. There are spaces available today. "If you're already booked but it's not till October" then rebook - try and get it done this week, she said.

The elimination approach remained the best one for New Zealand until the population was widely vaccinated.

"I will continue to defend the strategy we've had because compared to other countries NZ has had 521 days where we have not had stay-at-home orders," she said.

"It's worked well but we will constantly review what we do in the future."

The vaccine rollout had been going as fast as supply allowed. Fresh supplies meant there was now "nothing holding us back".

Even highly vaccinated populations were still using restrictions - including Denmark which had retained border restrictions despite removing other rules.

Asked about long delays experienced by some struggling Auckland businesses receiving the wage subsidy, Ardern said the payments had "tended to actually be very very fast" - some within hours. But she was happy to go and check.

Another wage subsidy round was available for those in Tamaki Makaurau, and businesses that were in level 2 but impacted by Auckland's lockdown could also be eligible for the further subsidy. The resurgence payment was also still available.

Reports that applying for the hardship grant was an intrusive, humiliating process for some people, Ardern said the Government had tried to make the process more accessible but she would ask her team to take another look into particular cases.

Ardern wanted to acknowledge everyone in Auckland and said there were members of the cabinet in the lockdown who were "right there with you".

Ardern said there was no intention to use lockdowns in the long term. She said New Zealand actually had fewer stay at home orders than most of the countries it compared itself too.

Ardern told the AM Show said all the experts said they needed as many people vaccinated as possible.

Denmark was the only country just using border restrictions, she said.

She would not put a number on how many people it needed to be vaccinated before lockdowns weren't needed. "Our plan is not to continue to use lockdowns." She said everyone had a role to play in its vaccination plan.

There were 220,000 spots in Auckland for people to be vaccinated this week - and the government wanted to use every one of them.

New Zealand was currently in lockdown because New Zealanders did not have enough people vaccinated to stop an outbreak, she said. "We know how hard it is, we absolutely do."

She said there was a plan and a way out for everyone and that plan was getting people vaccinated.

The DHBs had surge capacity that could take New Zealand up to 500 beds in ICU.

She said people were 30 times less likely to need to be hospitalised if they are vaccinated

"Our goal is to continue to be world-leading both in our freedoms and looking after people's health and wellbeing."

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking the number of Covid cases needs to come down still for Auckland to drop alert levels.

The "key" numbers, however, were the number of unlinked cases coming through still.

Bloomfield said officials were still confident and "cautiously optimistic" that Auckland could come down to alert level 3 in a week.

Bloomfield said it was important to remember that this was a very big outbreak. This was Delta.

"The key to our next steps is to get a high vaccination rate."

Bloomfield reiterated how a high vaccination rate in the community was necessary.

Mobile vaccination vans are now being organised to help vaccinate people at their homes.

Bloomfield encouraged anyone who was still to be vaccinated to go out and do so.

"Great to see the response so far."

Two catches in Govt's plan

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.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Auckland would remain in alert level 4. Photo Rob Kitchin Pool Stuff

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 the 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.

Auckland will be in alert level 4 for at least another week. Photo / Michael Craig

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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