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SocietyNovember 1, 2021

The Monday explainer: Waikato and Auckland to move to step two, level three


Cabinet has just announced that the parts of the Waikato currently in alert level three will move to ‘step two’ at midnight tomorrow, and Auckland a week later. Here’s what you need to know. 

Sorry, step what now? Is this the traffic light system?

Nope, not yet. Cast your mind back four weeks, when the prime minister announced a new three-step roadmap out of level three for Auckland. 

Was that really only four weeks ago?

In lockdown time is an illusion, but yes. 

Remind me – what was step one?

Step one, which Toby Manhire and no one else labelled “alert level 2.75”, kicked in for Auckland at 11.59pm on Tuesday, October 5. It allowed two households of up to 10 people total to meet up outside, outdoor distanced exercise classes of up to 10 people to take place, early childhood education centres to reopen, and Aucklanders to travel around the region for a wider range of recreational purposes. 

Last Thursday, the parts of Waikato that had been in level three since the beginning of October joined Auckland at level three, step one. 

Screengrab from the website

OK, I think I’m following. So what’s happening now?

Tomorrow at 11.59pm, those locked-down Waikato areas will move to step two of the exit plan. Auckland will follow exactly one week later.

And what happens at step two?

Step two means that shops can reopen, with distancing and masks, as can a range of public venues such as libraries and museums. Up to 25 people, from any number of bubbles, can now gather together outside. Organised outdoor exercise classes can expand to 25 people, with distancing in place.

So I can have a backyard bash with 25 people? 

Technically, yes, if you have that many friends. But make sure they have strong bladders – while it wasn’t explicitly mentioned at this afternoon’s press conference, the prime minister did emphasise that those 25-people gatherings must be outdoors. Presumably this means no dashing inside to the toilet, as was the rule (after some confusion) when we moved to step one. 

Will those 25 people have to be distanced and wear masks?

At step one, two households meeting up outside were “strongly encouraged to wear a face covering and keep two metres apart from the other household”. There’s no official line*, yet, as to whether this guidance will apply at step two.

*On Monday evening, this advice was updated to say “physical distancing is strongly encouraged to help prevent the virus spreading between households”.

Does this mean team sports are now allowed?

Good question. Cricket? Maybe. Rugby? Probably not (30 players on the field, for one). Netball? It’s unclear at this stage. 

Didn’t we have our highest-ever number of cases today? So why loosen restrictions further?

Yep, 162 cases today, 143 yesterday, and 160 the day before. And expect them to rise further. At this afternoon’s press conference, Ardern said, “Cases will go up, we expect that. That does not mean that restrictions haven’t played a role – they have. It also doesn’t mean those extra cases will have the same impact on our health system or people’s health than at the beginning of the outbreak.”

Cases also haven’t soared beyond what modelling predicted, said director general of health Ashley Bloomfield, as he presented a slideshow of graphs. The public health assessment of the impact of changes such as the opening up of retail “conclude that this activity is not generally responsible for a marked increase in cases”.

Did they also take into account the length of time Auckland has been in lockdown?

They did. “These decisions are carefully balanced and allow us to release some of the pressure and fatigue that we know exists in Auckland while we continue to vaccinate and prepare for the new framework,” said Ardern.

Where are we at with vaccination?

Auckland is now at 80% of the eligible population double vaccinated, with 5,000 first doses to go until 90% have had at least one jab.

Bloomfield said the R number was currently between 1.2 and 1.4, which was reflecting the impact of rising vaccination levels. The graph below shows where case numbers are expected to go, compared to where they’d be without vaccination rates rising. 

Predictions for case numbers based on vaccination
Predictions for case numbers based on vaccination (Image: Supplied)

He also said that while case numbers are increasing, hospitalisations are not rising at the same rate – another effect of vaccination. He added that a number of the Covid cases currently in hospital are there for reasons other than Covid-19.

Predictions for case numbers and hospitalisations
Predictions for case numbers and hospitalisations (Image / Supplied)

So is there a step three – and is it likely to be needed?

There is a step three, which would mean hospitality venues, cinemas and the like could open, with limits of 50 people. So could hairdressers and beauty salons, if masks are used. Gatherings could happen indoors, of up to 50 people. Whether a step to three happens depends on vaccination rates – the traffic light system will kick in when Auckland is at 90%, meaning our biggest city moves to red. This may supersede the need for step three.

What’s the traffic light system again?

You’re referring to the Covid-19 protection framework, whose highest setting is kind of similar to step three of level three, but with the important addition of vaccination certificates. Confused? Here’s something I prepared earlier.

What about schools – can primary kids return at step two?

That’s happening separately to all this step carry-on, and all going to plan, primary schools will reopen on November 15.

What about travel – when can I leave this godforsaken hellhole we call Auckland?

That remains unclear. Ardern did mention the Auckland boundary and the number of cases that have slipped through into other regions. She said further protections were being looked into, but warned people outside of the currently Covid-hit zones to expect more, even with further tightening. “We will continue to try to extinguish these cases but I don’t want anyone to be left with the belief that we can keep Covid in one place and one place only.”

This post was updated on November 2 to remove a screengrab taken from the the month prior that said public pools are open at step two. This has now been updated to remove this reference – pools stay closed at step two.

Keep going!