Jacinda Ardern at parliament on August 17, 2021 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern at parliament on August 17, 2021 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The BulletinSeptember 21, 2021

‘A calculated risk’ as restrictions eased

Jacinda Ardern at parliament on August 17, 2021 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern at parliament on August 17, 2021 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Auckland’s move to level three has left some experts worried that delta could spring back to life as hundreds of thousands of people are called back to work, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

We’ve never been here before. One of the most infectious variants of Covid-19 is still appearing unexpectedly in New Zealand’s biggest city, new cases are concentrated in areas with more vulnerable populations in South Auckland and the government is now relaxing restrictions in a move to level three. However, 4.7 million vaccine doses have been administered, providing millions with a personal layer of protection. While the country has been across the levels of restriction before and the rules have grown disagreeably familiar for most, we’ve never been in a situation like this.

The prime minister has taken a ‘calculated risk.’ That was the cautious first reaction from epidemiologist Michael Baker, who appeared on One News soon after the prime minister’s announcement yesterday that the longest level four lockdown of the pandemic is ending tonight. Many of his colleagues have adopted the phrase. A lockdown under level three will pose a tough challenge stamping out a delta outbreak that has produced over a dozen cases daily for the past fortnight. After five weeks of hard lockdown, “I think it is really in the hands of Aucklanders now,” said Baker.

The rest of New Zealand. Alert level two in the rest of the country remains, but with a tweak: gathering limits have been doubled to 100. The Auckland boundary remains and no return to level one is possible while the city remains in lockdown, the prime minister said. Asked why that applies to a Covid-free South Island, Jacinda Ardern pointed to the risks posed by two recent holidaymakers who illegally flew to Wānaka from Auckland.

The curveball in Waikato. The final hours before cabinet met were marked by growing angst over a new cluster of cases detected outside the Auckland boundary in Waikato. The small community of Mangatangi will now be under a bespoke hard lockdown lockdown for five days, according to Newsroom.

Other experts have also sounded a note of caution. While the cases didn’t alter the government’s decision, they provided a vivid example of the kind of spread that could still occur over the next two weeks as Auckland remains in level three lockdown. Public health expert Nick Wilson told the Science Media Centre that the decision was “relatively brave” from the government, “given that the outbreak is clearly not fully under control as seen with the recent spread”.

There’s no widespread undetected transmission in Auckland. While Ardern reiterated her view yesterday that it’s unwise to take any risks with the delta variant, she said health officials were no longer as concerned with Covid’s “long tail” of new cases. It’s a sign that the government’s risk settings have been readjusted. The Spinoff’s live updates covered her comments. Epidemiologists warn that the lack of widespread transmission isn’t the point, a single case in the community could be enough. That’s where this outbreak started.

Michael Plank, a modelling expert for Te Pūnaha Matatini, has said: “There is a danger that the increased number of people out in the community and the workplace at level three will add fuel to a smouldering fire and lead to an increase in cases.”

Here until Christmas? The consequences of failure in the coming fortnight could be disastrous, warns Newsroom. If cases start to rise under level three and contact tracers can’t get ahead of the fast-moving virus, Auckland could stay in level three until Christmas to allow time for vaccine coverage to catch up. Politik (paywalled) has written that some of the prime minister’s comments yesterday are a sign that the elimination strategy is being reinterpreted, moving towards vaccines and hard local lockdowns when needed.

Level three isn’t just level four with takeaways. One of the first things I noticed after Wellington moved to level three was the roads filling up in an industrial area near my home. The factories were fully back to work. While you can get takeaway flat whites and burgers under level three, many other businesses can open as well. According to the NZ Herald, the number of Aucklanders heading to work on Wednesday morning will triple, to 458,000. And that’s the government’s big gamble, that an infectious strain of the virus can be squashed as the country’s largest city roars back to life.

This is part of The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s must-read daily news wrap. To sign up for free, simply enter your email address below

Keep going!