Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Auckland rules to stay for another week; Northland, Waikato at level 3 until Friday

By Derek Cheng

* 35 cases today - all in Auckland; 21 are unlinked
* Mandatory vaccinations for healthcare, education workers
* PM labels Northland traveller 'irresponsible and dangerous'
* 'Nowhere near brave enough' - expert says Govt should have let businesses mandate compulsory vaccination

Auckland's level-3 Covid restrictions have been extended for another week and students will not return to class next Monday as the region continues to battle the Delta outbreak.

The outlook is slightly more optimistic for Waikato and Northland, with tentative plans to bring the regions out of level 3 - to level 2 - from 11.59pm on Thursday.

Mandatory vaccinations are also on the way for health and education workers but one health expert says the Government has not been brave enough - and that unless the region gets to a 95 per cent vaccination rate by early December, people can expect to spend Christmas at home.

Auckland University epidemiologist Rod Jackson said businesses should have been given the mandate today to introduce compulsory vaccinations for staff without fear of being prosecuted.

"I don't think I'd been making plans to leave home [for Christmas holidays] unless the Government brings in a much wider mandate," Jackson told TVNZ. "I mean we need everyone vaccinated before December, and if we got 95% of the population vaccinated by December... yeah, then you can have a holiday."

The Government's announcements came as 35 cases were announced today - all in Auckland. Twenty-one of them are so far unlinked.

Northland woman 'beyond irresponsible'

While Northland is set to move to level 2 from Friday, subject to case numbers and any hint of community spread, a female travelling companion of a Covid-positive woman still has not been located.

Ardern said officials knew who the woman was but they could not locate the. The situation, she said, was "extraordinary".

"I feel the same frustration that everyone else feels," she said. "They are refusing to co-operate, it is beyond irresponsible, it is dangerous."

Education and health-care workers need jab

Ardern said schools in Auckland would not reopen next Monday, after the current holidays, and further public health advice would be issued next week. Distance learning will recommence in term 4.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said workers in health and education sectors will be required to be vaccinated. "We can't leave anything to chance," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of education and health staff - including teachers, GPs, pharmacists, nurses - will need to be fully vaccinated in the coming months or face losing their jobs.

Hipkins said workers in health and education sectors who refuse to be vaccinated will not be able to work in those roles.

He said if parents are volunteering in schools, they will also need to be vaccinated.

The two-dose deadline for high-risk health and disability staff is December 1 this year, and for education - including all school and ECE staff who come into contact with students - it is January 1 2022.

Secondary schools, from next year, will also be required to keep a register to show the vaccination status of students.

"It's not an easy decision, but we need the people who work with vulnerable communities who haven't yet been vaccinated to take this extra step," he said. "Exemptions may be possible under some circumstances."

Ardern on alert level decisions

Ardern said part of the Government criteria had always been compliance when considering alert level changes - over time adhering to really strict restrictions was hard.

Auckland was in the longest period of restrictions - now entering the 9th week - since the Covid outbreak in March last year.

Last week, she said, the Government had sought to provide additional activities people could do safely to try to prevent people doing things that might be unsafe.

She said people might meet inside, which poses risk, so the Government tried to provide safety outdoor options.

The Government also tried to consider the impact of long restrictionson people's mental health, she said.

Since the 'step one' changes last week, Ardern said there had been some small levels of transmission in workplaces - including construction, food delivery and taxi services. Anyone travelling in a taxi should try to have a front and rear window open so air could better circulate.

Ardern disagreed with comments from Te Pāti Māori that opening up Auckland was "a form of modern genocide".

She said she wouldn't consider level 3 "opening up".

Delta was a different and more difficult opponent, Ardern said, and no other country had eliminated a Delta outbreak. She said getting to zero cases in Auckland had been "very tough".

Restrictions were still important while vaccinations were under way, Ardern said. Last week she said safe and minor changes were made, such as going outside to see another household. But she said people still needed to follow the rules - this would "make all the difference".

She wants to see the R value as close to 1 as possible, but it has increased in recent days and more cases will follow. It was hovering between 1.2 and 1.3, Ardern said.

The R value or number (reproduction number) is the average number of people infected by someone with the virus. If the R number's bigger than 1, the outbreak grows. If it's less than 1, the number of cases goes down.

Waikato, Northland moves

Ardern said Waikato would remain at alert level 3 until 11.59pm on Thursday. Hipkins will confirm a move to level 2 if it is safe to do so.

"Thank you for getting vaccinated," Ardern said of Waikato residents. People in the region also had undertaken more than 23,000 tests since the first cases were reported on October 3 - 4 per cent of the population.

All cases in Waikato had been linked, director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said. They were all family or known contacts, and that was "comforting".

Ardern said in Northland, authorities had "pieced together" what they could from CCTV footage of the two female travellers, and police investigations.

Ardern said health officials were working "very closely" with police about the pair.

Bloomfield said extra testing and additional vaccination centres in the area would help, and close contacts of the case would know who they were and should get tested, symptomatic or not.

Ardern said the Government knew who the second traveller in Northland was but they could not locate them and the situation was "extraordinary".

"I feel the same frustration that everyone else feels," she said. "They are refusing to co-operate, it is beyond irresponsible, it is dangerous.

"Health and police are really pulling out all the stops."

Bloomfield said the person was "not travelling around Northland at the moment".

Police were looking at all options to locate the person, he said.

Ardern said there were other options available to police, but she would not detail them because they extended "beyond contact-tracing now".

Ardern said she would not name the woman but she had asked police and health to consider doing so.

Ardern said the easiest option for the person was to come forward and allow a test to be undertaken to protect those around them. "That is by far, the simplest path from here".

NZ ahead of Germany, US on first doses

New Zealand has surpassed the US and Germany on first doses of the vaccine, Ardern said. Last week half a million doses were administered, and a record number of Māori turned out.

Ardern said Super Saturday this weekend would boost vaccination rates; it was an opportunity for people to get their second dose if it had been more than three weeks since their first jab.

NZ needs 95% vax rate before Xmas freedom - top expert

Auckland University epidemiologist Rod Jackson said the Government's vaccination announcements today were "nowhere near brave enough".

"Look, it's a good start but ... we need to go a lot further," he told TVNZ. "Education and health are the obvious ones, but the police are also pretty obvious. I think supermarkets, I don't want to go into a supermarket, and I'm worried about whether they've vaccinated. Actually hairdressers... that's about as close a contact you're going to get. And so I think hairdressers should be mandatory as well."

He said the Government should have given businesses the mandate to demand mandatory vaccinations for staff. "I think the biggest gap by far today was not giving businesses, the mandate to introduce 'no job, no job, no entry' policies without being scared of being prosecuted."

He said he was being contacted by businesses every day, seeking that mandate.

Jackson said he would not be making Christmas holiday plans unless the country got to a 95 per cent vaccination rate by early December.

"I don't think I'd been making plans to leave home [for Christmas holidays], unless the Government brings in a much wider mandate... I mean we need everyone vaccinated before December, and if we got 95% of the population vaccinated by December... yeah, then you can have a holiday."

He said a 90% vaccination rate was not good enough. "That leaves over 400,000 New Zealanders, who are eligible, unvaccinated. And the scariest thing is that 10% of people are probably our highest-risk population. We've seen it overseas in the UK, 10% of people were responsible for passing on 80% of the infections."

He said he was longer optimistic that Delta could be stamped out. "I'm not convinced we'll stamp it out in Auckland any more and it's not because it's not possible. It's just that people are behaving badly as we've seen, the people going south to people going north, we're not going to stamp it out. So, we're now into heavy suppression, until we get vaccinated. I think it's a race against time now."

He urged people to get vaccinated tomorrow.

"That's why I was disappointed that they didn't go hard enough [today]. We need a much wider mandate from the government in terms of vaccinations; we needed that mandate for businesses. We have to go really hard, we have to go really fast. You know, my message is go and do it tomorrow. Don't wait until next week or next month.

"I don't think that the average New Zealander has to follow those [case] numbers every day. They just have to go and get vaccinated because that's ultimately, our only defence against Covid.

"I'm making a plea to New Zealanders, not only as a scientist, but I'm also doing it as a husband, as a father, as a grandfather, as a friend, and as a colleague. We just have to go get vaccinated, so just go and do it."

35 cases today

Today the Ministry of Health reported 35 new cases - all in Auckland - 21 of which are unlinked.

Two staff members in North Shore Hospital have tested positive, following a positive case reported yesterday in a patient receiving treatment in the dialysis unit adjacent to North Shore Hospital.

Three staff members in Auckland City Hospital have tested positive for the virus.

Te Pāti Māori called for level 4 in Auckland and level 3 for the rest of the North Island until eligible Māori were 95 per cent vaccinated.

"Failure to do so is committing our people to death by Covid" te Pāti Māori co-leader Rawiri Waititi said."The reality is that the Government has failed to deliver to Māori.

They have failed to uphold their responsibility to Te Tiriti o Waitangi. And now we are on the brink of a catastrophe that none of us are prepared or resourced for simply because they won't hand over power [to localised, whānau-led responses]."

Healthcare workers must be vaccinated

Healthcare workers will have to be fully vaccinated by December 1 this year, and will need to have had their first dose by October 30.

The public health order requiring this will include general practitioners, pharmacists, community health nurses, midwives, paramedics, and all healthcare workers in sites where vulnerable patients are treated (including Intensive Care Units).

"These requirements also include certain non-regulated healthcare work, such as aged residential care, home and community support services, kaupapa Māori health providers and NGOs who provide health services," Hipkins said.

The full list will be provided in the next few days.

All staff at schools and ECEs who have contact with children and students will need to have a first dose by November 15, and to be fully vaccinated by January 1.

"This includes home-based educators, and all those support people in our schools and early learning services such as teacher-aides, administration and maintenance staff and contractors," Hipkins said.

"Secondary schools and kura will also be required to keep a Covid-19 vaccination register for students. Students that do not produce evidence of vaccination will be considered unvaccinated."

Hipkins said all school employees in Auckland and other level 3 regions will be required to return a negative Covid-19 test before they can return to work onsite.

"Those who are not fully vaccinated in the period leading up to January 1, 2022, will also be required to undergo weekly Covid-19 testing."

The Government was still considering whether mandatory vaccinations will be required in the tertiary education sector.

Secondary school mask use is required when they re-open across the country, Hipkins said, but other health measures have not been considered for schools that may open in alert level 3.

Hipkins said the Ministry of Education will work closely with smaller schools in isolated communities. He said those in rural areas are just as at risk and people living in cities, and that's a message that will be pushed in schools.

Hipkins said the ministry is used to supporting schools that have short term staffing needs, and will continue to do that. January 1 is the deadline for getting staff vaccinated so the school holidays allows more time.

He said he has not thought about an exemption process, and he would consider them on a case by case basis.

There are no requirements on students in schools to get vaccinated, Hipkins said.

He said they are conscious in education because a significant number of kids in schools cannot be vaccinated currently.

Hipkins does encourage all young people who ARE eligible to get vaccinated, and there has been a positive "uptick" in recent weeks as schools work with local health providers.

In Auckland, hospital staff are among those most regularly tested, Bloomfield said.

Corrections are maintaining a Covid-free environment for inmates and staff do have high rates of vaccination, Ardern said.

Ardern said the Government is considering ongoing surveillance testing in "high-risk workplaces going forward" such as people coming into ED and that would include Corrections.

Health experts urge caution

Public health experts earlier called on the Government to refrain from easing any alert level restrictions, given the increase in case numbers and the ongoing unknown factors in Northland.

The number of unlinked cases in Auckland in the past 14 days has grown for six consecutive days. Today it is 58. The previous days it has been 49, 30, 26, 23, and 15.

There are no new cases in the Waikato today, and there were three new cases each on Sunday, Saturday and Friday - all linked to the initial case in Hamilton East.

There are no known cases in Northland, but there are six locations of interest including a motel, a hotel, a campsite, a dairy and two petrol stations.

The travelling companion of the positive case who went to Whangārei is still yet to be located.

There have also been calls to strengthen the level 3 boundary around Auckland, and while Ardern has said she is considering mandating vaccinations for essential workers leaving the city, she is not expected to make announcements on this today.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins will reveal Cabinet's decision about who will need to be vaccinated in the health and education workforces. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Hipkins will also reveal any decisions about whether schools will reopen on October 18.

This morning a number of health and youth experts, in an Otago University public health blogpost, called for a clear strategy to minimise any infections in school settings.

These included mandatory vaccination for all adults on school sites - and no on-site learning to start before 90 per cent vaccination coverage for staff - regular staff testing, vaccination events in schools, and guidelines on ventilation, physical distancing and mask use.

Cabinet considers many factors when considering alert level changes, including the number and nature of cases, the levels of public compliance, and the impact on the economy.

Ardern has also said that the lockdown equation changes as vaccination levels increase.

She hasn't tied any targets to easing restrictions, although she has said that 90 per cent coverage of the eligible population in the Waikato could have avoided that region going into level 3.

This morning Auckland's eligible population was at 86 per cent with one dose, but last week's suburb-by-suburb data showed low double dose rates for many of the suburbs of concern including parts of Māngere, Clover Park, Manurewa, Papakura, and Favona.

On Friday Hipkins said that about 70 per cent of the eligible population in Northland have had one dose, while 48 per cent have had two doses. Those rates are lower for Māori: 52 per cent for one dose and 32 per cent fully vaccinated.

Some parts of the Waikato where cases have been also have relatively low vaccination rates. In Raglan, for example, only 42 per cent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated.

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