Experts believe it's safe to move down Covid-19 alert levels today - but only with systematic rules including mask-wearing and a move away from a "she'll be right" approach.
Otago University's Professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson and Auckland University's Professor Shaun Hendy say Auckland can safely move down to alert level 2 because no new cases from the original Auckland cluster have been reported for five days and the latest cases from India have been caught early.
They say the rest of the country should be moved down from level 2 - but only to what they all call "level 1.5", with masks still required on public transport and school buses and in healthcare settings and rest homes.
Wilson called for a systematic assessment of risks and a move way from "ad-hoc" responses to every new event.
"This is not a time for 'she'll be right'. We have to go beyond number-8 wire solutions to doing things," he said.
The experts' recommendations would mean that:
- The limit on public gatherings in Auckland would go up from 10 people probably to 100 people, or possibly to an intermediate number such as 20 or 50;
- Social distancing requirements to keep one metre apart in workplaces and two metres apart from people you don't know in shops and other indoor places would remain in Auckland but would be removed in the rest of the country; but
- Everyone would still have to wear masks on public transport including school buses and in indoor spaces where it's practicable.
The Cabinet is due to decide today on whether to change alert levels, which currently stand at level 2.5 in Auckland and level 2 elsewhere.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week that ministers would consider moving Auckland to level 2 from this Wednesday and the rest of the country to level 1 from midnight tonight.
Hendy, who warned last week that there was a 25 percent chance of the coronavirus spreading outside of Auckland, said that risk was now much less because no new cases from the original Auckland cluster have been reported for several days.
He said the latest group of three cases that have been traced to a person who returned from India was "disconcerting", but it seemed likely that all the person's contacts could be traced.
"Looking at the big Auckland cluster, you do get the sense that it has been contained. We've had a few days where we haven't discovered any new cases, and prior to that we had a period where we were not finding them in unexpected places," he said.
"That does suggest we are on top of that and we can relax that social gathering restriction."
But he said the Indian case showed that new cases were still possible despite the two-week quarantine on new arrivals, so it would be unwise to return to level 1 as it applied in June and July with effectively no restrictions except at the border.
"We want to make sure we are taking basic precautions. That includes keeping testing rates up and the use if masks where we can," he said.
"They are not pleasant, they can be uncomfortable, but compared to having to go into lockdown they are a small price to pay."
Wilson said the Indian case suggested that people need to stay under surveillance for a while after leaving quarantine.
"Maybe we need to look at whether they have some home quarantine for a week, or avoid going to certain large events, or monitoring their symptoms - whether a nurse is ringing them maybe every second day to check on their symptoms," he said.
He said the Government should use the Royal Society or a similar body to assess the risks at all stages of people coming into the country and what could be done to minimise those risks, such as being tested before they get on a plane and quarantining them at isolated facilities such as Ohakea air base
"We have to go away from these ad-hoc approaches. We have to have a proper system assessment and have things to reduce the risk," he said.
"I quite like living in a 'she'll be right' country, but this is not a time for 'she'll be right'. We have to go beyond number 8 wire solutions to doing things."
He said New Zealand should also follow countries such as Ireland, Spain, Iceland and South Korea which are using smartphone-based technologies to boost contact tracing.
"Work has been done on the Covid card. That should have been happening much faster," he said.
Baker and Wilson suggested on September 3 that gatherings should be limited to 20 people (or 50 for funerals) at level 2 and to 50 people (or 100 for funerals) at level 1.5, with masks required at both levels on public transport and school buses and in health care settings and rest homes.
Baker said the alert level system should be fine-tuned to allow even more than 100 people at low-risk gatherings outdoors or in events such as concerts where everyone can wear masks, but with continued restrictions for venues such as bars and restaurants where people are eating or drinking and mask use is impractical.
"You want to avoid the high risk of large numbers of people drinking and potentially moving between multiple venues," he said.
"There need to be some limitations on that scenario - how can we ensure minimal restrictions on those venue operators and keep control of the virus?
"We need to work with people in the hospitality industry, who are potentially very good at managing those environments, saying how can we have a set of rules that allows businesses to open but minimises potential for large-scale transmission?"