PM extends alert level settings for 12 days; decision on election in 48 hours

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 14 Aug 2020, 5:26PM

PM extends alert level settings for 12 days; decision on election in 48 hours

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 14 Aug 2020, 5:26PM

New Zealand will maintain its current lockdown settings for 12 more days.

That would mean the current settings will be in place for 14 days - or one full incubation period.

The current settings will remain until 11.59pm on August 26, but Cabinet will review the settings on August 21, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has just announced.

"There is nothing to suggest we need to move to a level 4 lockdown at this stage."

Auckland shouldn't be at level 3 for any longer than necessary.

"But it is wise to take a bit of extra time.

"Short and sharp is best."

She said Cabinet's decision today was unanimous.

Moving Tokoroa, which has positive cases, into level 3 wasn't necessary because those cases were linked to the Auckland cluster and were isolated.

Ardern said it had been 53 hours since Auckland was in level 3, while the rest of NZ was in level 2.

She said the aim was to restore level 1 freedoms as quickly as possible.

Lifting restrictions now and seeing an explosion of cases later would be devastating for Auckland, and though level 3 was easier on the economy than full lockdown, she acknowledged that it would be hard on Auckland.

In Auckland, there has been a 60 per cent reduction of travel compared with previous weeks.

The election

Ardern wouldn't be drawn on the impact of extending the alert level settings on the election date.

She added that the Electoral Commission had done planning around an election if New Zealand was at level 2.

She said there was still 48 hours - when Parliament is set to be dissolved - before she had to make a decision on moving the election date.

Ardern said reviewing settings on August 21 meant that it was possible, depending on what mass testing showed, to ease alert level settings before midnight on August 26.

At this stage she did not think the current settings would be needed beyond August 26.

Ardern said Winston Peters was free to give his own interviews and she hadn't asked him to apologise for his comments last night about the source of the current outbreak being a breach of quarantine.

Wage subsidy

Ardern said the wage subsidy would be extended to protect jobs.

The details will be finalised, but it will be nationwide and will cover the period of time that level 3 restrictions are in place.

Ardern said the extension of the wage subsidy had expected to cost $2.6b to $3.9b, but only about $2b had been allocated so far, so there was breathing room to extend it further.

She said Auckland Transport had 44 construction sites operating, while five sites and 1200 workers continued on the City Rail Link.

"Houses continue to be built in Auckland."

All of this is happening because of the protocols of operating safely at level 3, including social distancing at worksites, she said.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson - who took to the podium after 6pm - said a lot of New Zealanders had now used their sick leave and so extending the wage subsidy scheme would give people confidence to stay home if they were sick and got tested.

Early estimates are this extension would come in under $1 billion.

Robertson said regional boundaries didn't really work because a lot of businesses worked both inside and outside of Auckland.

"Administratively it would have also made it a lot slower to get it out the door."

The two-week timeframe was based on the impact of alert level 3, Robertson said.

All of the other schemes, like rental support, are also being looked at.

Robertson said a lot of economic assessments didn't factor in the flow-on effects of locking down Auckland.

"We have never wavered from the view the best response is a strong health response."

Cabinet didn't consider support for Auckland Council, he said.

Robertson said "so far, so good" with operating different parts of the country in different levels and there hadn't been any specific concerns so far.

Auckland - and the cluster

There are 29 cases linked to the cluster in Auckland, and one more case likely linked to the cluster, she said.

The 1.5 million people in Auckland were "carrying a heavy load" for the rest of the country, she said.

"If you're in Auckland, please stay at home in your bubble. Wear a face covering whenever you leave your home."

"Download and use the app and make sure you can quickly access your movements in the last 14 days in case you are contacted by contact-tracers."

"If you're unwell, get a test."

More than 30,000 tests have taken place, and 38 people are in quarantine as a precuation.

She said the outbreak had been detected "relatively early".

The earliest case in the cluster was a worker at the Americold Coolstore in Mt Wellington who became sick on July 31.

This person may not be the earliest case, and the source of the chain of transmission has not been discovered.

She said the genome sequencing of the current outbreak is not the same as any other previous transmission, which suggests it is a new strain in New Zealand.

Ardern said the source of the infection was not "a burning ember" from a previous chain of transmission, given that the genome sequencing of this strain appears to be new.

She said again that the cluster will continue to grow, and it may be linked to more social gatherings, churches and schools.

"It is possible to contain a cluster or outbreak without having to identify its origin."

Ardern said the extra time to test meant that it wasn't necessary to find the source of infection, and previous clusters have been closed without finding the source.

Finding the source would still be preferable, she said, and efforts would continue to try and find it.

She said clusters couldn't be easily modelled, but past clusters had reached up to 100 cases.

Why the decision was made

Ardern said moving all of the North Island to level 3 was unnecessary because all of the cases were connected, and all confirmed cases were in isolation.

But Auckland wasn't moved to level 2 given the churches and schools that positive cases had attended.

Ardern and her colleagues have been locked in a Cabinet meeting since 3pm, poring over Covid-19 data in order to come to a decision.

Ardern has been joined by director general of health Ashley Bloomfield at this evening's briefing.

Bloomfield said his advice was to continue the settings for 12 more days, but it was more important to have more time to see the extent of the outbreak.

"There may well still be the odd case and the odd new case in 12 days' time," he said, and the strength of the system was such that it could contact-trace and isolate cases quickly.

Bloomfield said there was no health advice from him that Cabinet didn't follow today.

Bloomfield said the positive case in the Auckland Hospital was likely connected to the Americold workplace, though it hadn't been confirmed yet.

Bloomfield added 83 per cent of close contacts had been isolated within 48 hours, which was above the gold-standard of 80 per cent.

Critical issues

Bloomfield said the critical issues in the next seven to 12 days was the pattern, geography and environments - such as indoor settings like a church service - of new cases.

Ardern added that finding the perimeter of the cluster was also being sought.

The results so far were "heartening" in terms of the limited extent of the outbreak, but she said she didn't want to get ahead of herself.

The surges in cases in Melbourne and Hong Kong were also factors in Cabinet's decision, she said.

Bloomfield said about half of the 30,000 tests had been in Auckland.

There had been no signs that a move to level 4 was necessary, such as multiple clusters on a much larger scale.

The PM said today's decision didn't necessarily mean that, for example, Dunedin would be moved to level 3 for two weeks if new cases popped up there.

The latest figures

An important piece of the puzzle will be today's new Covid-19 numbers.

Ardern said on Tuesday night the Auckland lockdown would last until midnight tonight unless it was decided it needed to be extended.

This was after the discovery of four new cases of community transmission – all from the same family – in Auckland.

The rest of New Zealand was moved into level 2.

There are 30 active cases connected to the recent outbreak. Two new confirmed cases are in Tokoroa, the rest in Auckland.

Members of the cluster have travelled to Rotorua, Taupo and Morrinsville.

Bloomfield said today there were 13 new cases of Covid-19 in the community – 12 confirmed and one probable.

All the cases announced today were "clearly linked" to the existing Auckland cluster.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said this was "good news".

38 people linked to the cluster have moved into quarantine facilities.