Some experts say Auckland’s impending move to alert level 3, step 2 on Wednesday poses significant risk, with one public health authority saying he would have waited another few weeks.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed Cabinet’s in-principle decision from last week to move Auckland to step 2 from Wednesday – enabling retail businesses and public facilities like libraries and zoos to open.
Outdoor gatherings could be up to 25 people with no restriction on the number of households.
She also announced upper Northland, which had been in traditional alert level 3 for a week, would move to level 2 from Friday.
Today’s decision will be a slight reprieve for lockdown-fatigued Aucklanders but not everyone agrees it’s the right move.
“It’s not what I would have done,” public health expert Dr Collin Tukuitonga said.
“We’ve got lots of new cases, we’ve got new suburbs [of concern], we have many unlinked cases, we have the equivalent of four wards [of patients] in hospital with Covid.
“In other words, I think the outbreak is not under control and we don’t have good enough vaccination rates, particularly among Māori who are most at risk, so it’s not what I would have done, but obviously Cabinet and the Prime Minister have made the decision.”
There were 190 new community cases announced today, not far off the record daily tally of 206 on Saturday. Only 80 have been linked epidemiologically, leaving 110 with an unknown source.
Eighty-one people with the virus are in hospital, including a six-week-old baby in Whangārei.
The Ministry of Health has highlighted six new suburbs of interest where the risk of unidentified cases is higher – Ranui, Sunnyvale, Kelston, Birkdale, Manurewa and Māngere.
Birkdale hasn’t been highlighted since an outbreak there in September.
Counties Manukau District Health Board recently joined Auckland and Waitematā DHBs in reaching 90 per cent of residents having received at least one vaccination.
While commending that achievement, Tukuitonga said he would have waited one or two weeks before shifting to the second alert level 3 step, saying more resources were needed to lift Māori vaccination levels.
Seventy-four per cent of eligible Māori nationally had received one dose of the vaccine, 57 per cent were double dosed. Across all ethnicities, 89 per cent of eligible people had had one dose, 78 per cent were fully vaccinated.
Tukuitonga acknowledged the toll lockdown was taking on Aucklanders but believed it would have been better to act cautiously.
“People are fed up, people are tired, some people are angry, they want more freedom but we have an outbreak that’s not under control and it’s always going to be a difficult decision for Government, I understand that.
“I guess as a public health person, I would have erred on the side of caution and probably stayed in step 1 for another week or so.”
Covid-19 modeller Michael Plank said easing restrictions while cases in Auckland were doubling roughly every 12 days was “risky”.
“The Government is banking on the new freedoms not contributing to a big increase in transmission,” he said.
“However, with 700 cases from the last two weeks remaining unlinked, the reality is we don’t actually know where a significant proportion of our cases are coming from.”
While higher vaccination levels meant higher case levels could be tolerated, Plank said New Zealand couldn’t afford to let unlinked cases spiral “completely out of control”.
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