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The BulletinAugust 24, 2021

The Bulletin: How delta spread through Auckland


Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: The story of how Auckland’s delta cluster was created, an extended lockdown for the country and a pending free trade deal with the UK.

The delta outbreak’s spread is becoming increasingly defined. As the number of cases and contacts rise quickly, officials are mapping out how the delta variant spread. A picture is emerging of an outbreak that is larger than first expected and also a country that came close to the tipping point where case numbers could have exploded.

It began in early August. The first infection has been linked back to a returnee from Sydney who arrived on a red zone flight on August 7. After returning a negative test prior to departure, they were put in Auckland’s downtown Crowne Plaza hotel, a managed isolation facility. The next day they tested positive and on August 9 were moved to quarantine.

The escape. Sometime during that first weekend of August, either on the seventh or eighth, the delta variant escaped the Crowne Plaza. Investigations are ongoing into one of two walkways near the hotel that are open to the public, and where the most fleeting of interactions might have unwittingly spread the virus. If so, it had a toehold.

The week. That Monday, a suspected case went to a mechanic’s shop in the morning. Other suspected cases took the bus to school and work. In the evening, one dined at a trendy restaurant in Britomart. Over the following week, the delta variant slowly spread through Auckland. From one person it could have spread to six, infecting a new person every day. “Basically, from the period we identified the person at the Crowne Plaza it’s dotted all the way through,” the prime minister said Monday afternoon, describing the appearance of new cases. Many of them have retrospectively reported minor symptoms that first week, according to director general of health Ashley Bloomfield. A sniffle would be easy to dismiss after months without a community case.

The weekend. By Friday evening, August 13, there were probably a few dozen cases in Auckland, according to expert modeller Shaun Hendy. Many of them could possibly be linked to a four-person flat where a tradie, teacher and nurse lived, he told The Bulletin. The group had a busy schedule, and the virus spread rapidly. “Then people were having a good weekend. Over that weekend it goes from a few dozen cases to potentially hundreds,” said Hendy.

The church. On Saturday, August 14, there was a university ball at the Aotea Centre where hundreds attended. On Sunday, August 15, the Samoan Assembly of God church in Māngere could have been the scene of one of the largest transmission events with a number of cases linked to services that day. About half of all known cases now are in Auckland’s Pacific community.

The test. One person who didn’t enjoy a weekend in Auckland was a 58-year-old tradie from Devonport who had gone to Coromandel. On Monday, August 16, the man went to see his GP and got a test after experiencing symptoms. He worked with the tradie from the flat. The next day, his test came back positive. The country was in level four lockdown on Tuesday at midnight.

How many? By the time the Devonport man was tested, hundreds of people could have been infected with Covid-19, according to Hendy. Nearly all of them are in Auckland. An initial estimate from Hendy’s group of about 100 infections at that time have been increased to a less defined “hundreds” after those big weekend events. “We were really lucky that he did get that test, but at that point the outbreak is large enough that you’re bound to get someone who will go for a test,” Hendy added. “That is the point where you spot an outbreak like this.”

Luck ran out. There were a few points during the Covid-19 pandemic where New Zealand, frankly, got lucky. That’s been a conclusion from epidemiologist Nick Wilson in the past. Where a nurse or worker became infected with Covid-19 and didn’t pass it on, or an Australian spent a very busy weekend in the capital and didn’t spread the delta virus he was carrying. That doesn’t take away from the country’s hard work and quick decisions, but it can be good to have luck on your side. Had someone gotten tested a week earlier, the outbreak could have been detected early, but there was no lucky break this time. “We were all hoping that we’d be lucky, that we’d caught it earlier,” said Hendy. There are now seven people in hospital.

The “head start.” When the prime minister talks about delta’s “head start,” she largely means that week and weekend where the virus spread rapidly. The growing list of locations of interest, many of which haven’t been linked to any transmission, show what would have happened had the decision to enter lockdown been second-guessed or delayed. On Tuesday, hours before lockdown, cases went to schools and universities, rode buses and trains around Auckland, shopped at the Warehouse and Kmart, went to the dentist, the doctor and radiology clinic, dropped into a gym class, picked up groceries at a number of supermarkets, stopped for petrol, and went to restaurants and bars well into the evening. The delta variant has now been shown to spread within a day of someone getting infected.

The next week. The country should know by this Friday whether the outbreak is subsiding. Based on the government’s modelling, cases should peak tomorrow, said the prime minister. The best outcome would be several hundred cases overall, according to Hendy. That would be the worst outbreak since Covid-19 first arrived. The worst case scenario could top the first outbreak, with over 1200 cases, if Covid starts to spread between essential workers and people break their bubbles.

The Spinoff is doing our utmost to keep you updated on Covid-19 related news through this outbreak. Every dollar our members contribute directly funds our editorial team and is devoted to ensuring we do more. Click here to learn how you can support the team today.

Lockdown has been extended across New Zealand. Auckland will stay at level four until the start of September, while the rest of the country will remain in lockdown until the end of day Friday at the earliest. Stuff has reported the prime minister as saying that there are too many “unanswered questions” with over 400 locations of interest and 14,000 contacts. The decision will come as a blow to some in the South Island who Newshub describe as suffering from “lockdown fatigue” after six days under level four. Hundreds of close contacts are isolating across the South Island.

A free trade deal with UK is near. A free trade agreement between NZ and the UK could be signed before the end of the month, according to RNZ. Under details released by the British, tariffs on New Zealand’s honey, apples and wine would be cut while Aotearoa would reduce its tariffs on gin, chocolate, clothes and cars from the UK. Any final deal would be compared to the sweeping package struck between the UK and Australia earlier this year.

Seniors say they can’t afford increasing council rates. The country’s infrastructure is often in a sorry state, from broken pipes to needed roads that are unfunded. New Zealand’s water system alone requires up to $185 billion over the next thirty years. In many cases, councils are increasing rates to tackle looming repair bills. The Wairarapa Times-Age reports on a retired couple who say they can’t afford their rates going up by 25%. While you can disagree with the couple’s conclusion (local infrastructure is fine) and proposed remedy (freeze rates), it sketches out an argument that will be at the centre of local politics for years to come.

The situation in Afghanistan is disintegrating further. New Zealand’s first evacuees from the war torn country are now on their way here, but the number airlifted isn’t being disclosed by the government. Meanwhile, American and German soldiers were in a firefight outside Kabul airport yesterday according to Reuters. Thousands of Afghans are still trying to flee the country and the situation remains tense, with the Taliban surrounding the international airport.

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The first trans-Tasman bubble flight from Australia to Wellington lands at Wellington Airport on April 19. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Wellington International Airport via Getty Images)

Right now on The Spinoff: Toby Manhire reports that nearly half the country doesn’t want the trans-Tasman bubble to reopen this year, according to an exclusive poll. Andrew Geddis looks at the legal basis for the government’s decision to mandate masks and contact tracing. Charlotte Muru-Lanning describes what has been lost with the last-minute cancellation of the annual Koroneihana at Turangawaewae Marae. Josie Adams attempts to write a plain language explanation of what bitcoin really is. In what could be a helpful resource, Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris have re-released their Covid-19 symptoms chart in English, Māori, Sāmoan, Mandarin, Hindi, Tongan and Punjabi.

For a feature today, the story of Meng Wanzhou. Largely unknown outside of Huawei before late 2018, Meng is now a household name in Canada. The Huawei executive was arrested at Vancouver airport, at the request of American authorities, and now faces extradition to the US on criminal charges of evading sanctions with Iran. The case has been at the centre of a titanic clash between the US and China. As The Guardian reports, Canada has been dragged into the case and its citizens jailed in retaliation:

Meng’s living conditions in Canada contrast starkly with those of two Canadians detained in apparent retaliation for her arrest. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have been held in harsh Chinese detention, subject to interrogations and alleged mistreatment. Chinese authorities deny their arrests were related but also repeatedly suggest their freedom is tied to Meng’s.

At her multimillion-pound house, Meng has received visits from both a masseuse and an art teacher. By day, she is free to move within the limits of the city, and photographs of her leaving for court show her wearing bright corporate dresses and spiked heels, accessorised with a tracking device strapped to her ankle.

New Zealand and Australia’s rugby rivalry is now a total mess. Dylan Cleaver and Scotty Stevenson have written for The Spinoff about what they call a complete breakdown of the trans-Tasman rugby relationship. It’s about money, Covid-19 and well, Australia keeps losing to the All Blacks. “What has emerged is a grim picture of two rugby countries that should be allied but instead have barely-concealed contempt for each other,” they write. In the end, NZ Rugby might just take its ball and go.

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