New Zealand will stay in lockdown until 11.59pm on Tuesday – and Auckland will likely remain at level 4 for a fortnight after that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.
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The country will be split in two come Wednesday, and a border south of Auckland will be tightly controlled by police to contain the Delta outbreak.
Only essential workers and those with exemptions will be allowed through roadblocks – a decision that’s been described as a positive as long as there are tight controls are in place and the “monumental mess” of prior lockdowns is addressed well in advance.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday announced all of the country south of Auckland would move down to alert level 3 from 11.59pm on Tuesday.
A firm decision would be made for Auckland and Northland on Monday, but Ardern said it was likely those regions would see another week at level 4, and even two more for Auckland.
That means police will be setting up checkpoints along Auckland’s southern border to restrict travel in and out of Auckland for all but essential workers and those with special exemptions granted by MBIE.
Along with manning checkpoints, police have warned they will be stopping and questioning more people about their reason for being on the road from today.
University of Otago public health expert Professor Nick Wilson said the regional approach was a good idea, as long as there was tight border control around Auckland.
“Last time it was a bit hopeless. There were reports of some places 90 per cent of people being let through, it was extremely loose.
“Now, though, there are more tools, with potential to restrict movement to vaccinated essential workers and instigate regular testing, including saliva testing.
“If we can tightly control the internal borders we could see Auckland more rapidly moving out of lockdown.”
Road Transport Forum chief executive Nick Leggett said the roadblocks south of Auckland had been “a monumental mess” during the previous lockdown in August.
During that lockdown there were massive queues of vehicles as police checked whether there was a legitimate reason for travel. Leggett said that was a health and safety issue for freight drivers, an animal welfare issue, and had delayed deliveries of food and essential medicines.
“It is critical that freight can move. Plans should have been developed prior to them being needed and that has not happened. So we are concerned about the first 24 to 48 hours [of the alert level changes] particularly.”
He said he hoped that making it clear only essential workers and freight would be able to cross was a good thing, and hoped that would keep others off the roads.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said they were ready to establish region-specific boundaries to enforce any alert level changes.
Police will be stepping up visibility and intensifying patrols under level-four lockdown this weekend – ahead of next week’s change of alert levels.
“People can expect that police will intensify our enforcement of the level 4 restrictions, and more people will be stopped and questioned about their reason for moving away from home,” said Coster.
“With the alert level remaining the same for the weekend, we ask New Zealanders to continue to ensure their movement away home is for essential purposes only,” said Coster.
Most Kiwis had been complying with level 4 rules – but police wanted to deter non-essential travel on roads.
“The vast majority of New Zealanders have demonstrated an amazing level of compliance, and we need to ensure their hard work and sacrifice is not compromised by a few who deliberately break the rules.”
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“We are already prepared for an alert level change and our planning includes a more stringent approach to non-essential movement in the current Level 4,” said Coster.
“Our operational planning is well-advanced and we are ready to move quickly to establish region-specific boundaries to enforce any alert level changes.”
The official locations for these will be publicised once a Health Order has been received.
A police spokeswoman said she could not say when that would occur, nor if any of the issues raised last time would be addressed.
The decision to spilt Auckland and Northland from the rest of the country came as 70 new cases were reported yesterday, all in Auckland, taking the total to 347. There are 14 in Wellington. Nineteen people in Auckland are in hospital, including one in ICU.
Ardern said, after 68 cases on Thursday, case numbers were starting to “plateau”.
The vast majority of new cases post-lockdown were within households and bubbles. Just a few were spread between non-public-facing essential workers.
The numbers of new locations were also dipping, showing the lockdown was working, she said.
But with close contacts spread right across the country the “cautious approach” was to stay on the same path a little longer.
“Level 4 is the most effective tool we have at the moment.”
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said waiting until Tuesday night would ensure there had been 14 days since the lockdown began – a full incubation period.
“It will also give time for further wastewater testing in Christchurch, which will hopefully build confidence that previous positive results were indeed linked to cases in MIQ.”
Plank said some people in the South Island could be frustrated at not moving to level 2 but while there was a large and active outbreak in Auckland, movement of essential supplies around New Zealand created an ongoing risk that a case could leak out of the region.
“At level 2 this could lead to an explosive outbreak. Level 3 provides a safety net so that, if an outbreak does crop up outside Auckland it won’t be able to grow as quickly.
“If Auckland case numbers start to come down, other regions that are clear of Covid may be able to drop to level 2 but that will take time.”
The extra two weeks for Auckland was a “realistic timeframe”, Plank said.
“There are encouraging signs that the lockdown is highly effective, but it will take time to bring cases down. If the lockdown continues to have the desired effect, after two more weeks cases could be in steady decline.
“Once contact tracers are confident they are getting cases isolated before they can pass the virus on, this will be when Auckland can start to safely drop down the alert levels.”
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said the expected level 4 extension was “not welcome news”, but necessary.
Auckland’s role as a gateway city meant it had endured more restrictions and lockdowns, and he said it was important the Government recognised that and provided assistance, Goff said.
With the move down alert levels, Wilson said it would be good for the mask use settings introduced at level 4 continue at level 3 for all indoor settings outside of the home.
“Given the importance of airborne transmission with this pandemic virus – we need to make maximum use of the mask tool to accelerate progress out of lockdown.”