There are 21 new cases of Covid-19 in the community today, bringing the total number of people infected in the outbreak to 72. One million New Zealanders are now fully vaccinated.
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Case numbers could rise for another five days, says Associate Minister of Health Ayesha Verrall – and numbers today could be the highest we have seen so far.
“I think [reducing numbers] could still be a wee way away – it could be another five days before we see the impact of the transmission that was happening in the community prior to lockdown pass through,” Verrall told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking.
Verrall said it was possible we could see a higher number of cases today than we have in previous days.
Asked whether Auckland was in for another four weeks in lockdown, Verrall said she didn’t have a view on today’s Cabinbet decision but there were still areas of ongoing risk around the country, particuarly Auckland.
Cabinet will meet today to decide on whether to extend the nationwide alert level 4 lockdown beyond midnight on Tuesday, which most observers think is inevitable. The decision will be announced by the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at 4pm.
There are 72 Covid community cases – 66 in Auckland and six in Wellington – and five people are in hospital, but are not requiring intensive-care treatment. A queue of cars is already lining up at the Henderson testing station this morning, following tens of thousands of tests at the weekend.
Verrall said they did not know where every exposed person went in New Zealand when the lockdown was announced and that was the risk when changing alert levels by region. She said there were “thousands” who left Auckland.
Asked who would look after regional borders when alert levels changed, Verrall said there was a lot of work going on. Police would look after roads while MBIE would do businesses affected by road blocks.
“In terms of the decision we get a lot of the informtion in the hours before the decision is made but one thing to be aware of we are only in day six of this lockdown.”
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She told the AM Show: “We are in a situation where we need to be very cautious and we are making sure we are adjusting the response as we go to deal with these pressures.”
Verrall said she did not think an outbreak could be turned around with contact tracing alone when the government was dealing with Delta. She now believed lockdown was also needed to get on top of it.
Verrall told Hosking that the country could do up 60,000 vaccine jabs a day.
Expert warns of messy, frustrated lockdown exit
An adviser to the Government on Covid-19 is warning Kiwis to prepare for a “messy and frustrated” exit from lockdown to a life that may not be as free as the last 18 months.
Wigram Capital Advisors’ Rodney Jones, who has been advising the Government on Covid-19 throughout the pandemic, warned that the highly transmissible Delta variant would make for a difficult exit from lockdown.
He said New Zealanders may need to prepare for life not going back to the way it was before the latest outbreak.
“We’re not going back to what we had for the last 18 months,” Jones said. “At what point do you say, ‘You had a fantastic 18 months, but in some ways the future we face is not going to be as good as that’.”
Jones said that in hindsight, the country should have been at a permanent state of level 2. “We should have been at level 2. Once we had a certain number of Delta cases at MIQ that’s quite a different mindset you have to have,” he said.
Jones said his pessimism was down to the extraordinary transmissibility of the Delta variant of the virus, which he thinks is no match for even New Zealand’s relatively good MIQ system.
The pandemic had forced “tough choices” on New Zealand: to shut the border completely, (which is impossible and maybe illegal) manage a closed border using MIQ, or to use vaccinations to protect people.
Jones said managing a functioning MIQ system with Delta was going to be difficult, meaning “our only defence becomes vaccinations”.
“You go from the public-national defence to the individual armour of the vaccine,” Jones said.
Jones’ comments come as the number of cases in the latest outbreak continued to rise over the weekend, although not at the same breakneck pace as the outbreak in New South Wales, which announced more than 800 new cases on Saturday and Sunday.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced 21 new cases of Covid-19 in the community on Sunday, bringing the number of cases likely connected to the latest outbreak to 72.
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The number of locations of interest ballooned to almost 300, and included a large number of mass gatherings.
Hipkins said the decision would go down to the wire on Monday, with Cabinet waiting until it gets the latest case data before making a decision on alert levels.
“We will give people plenty of notice,” Hipkins said. “There’s still more information to gather.”
The big question is how long places like Auckland and Wellington will need to stay in lockdown to stamp out the virus – and whether stamping out the Delta variant is even possible long-term.
Jones said New Zealand’s response was “limping to year-end” at which point a decision would need to be made about how the Covid strategy would evolve. But the key would need to be high rates of vaccinations.
“The equilibrium in this pandemic will be found when the virus stops mutating so quickly and the vaccines have caught up with that,” he said.
Jones said that the latest outbreak was tracking better than Victoria and New South Wales, meaning the country might avoid a prolonged lockdown.
Fellow modeller Shaun Hendy, whose team had also done modelling for the Covid response, was more optimistic.
Hendy said an extension of lockdown through to the end of the week is likely.
“Given the high number of exposure events I think there is still a chance it’s got to parts of the country other than Wellington,” Hendy said.
Only by the middle of next week can we start giving the all clear in other parts of the country.
Hendy said there is a “good chance” of getting ahead of the virus “assuming we don’t see clusters outside Auckland and Wellington”.
He was hopeful that once vaccinations had been widely rolled out to 70 per cent of the population, that level 3 and 4 lockdowns might be taken “off the table”.
“We’re still going to see things like masking, scanning a supercharged contact tracing system, maybe we can start taking those alert levels out of our levies – at least alert level 3 and 4,” Hendy said.
Another decision the Government will have to make on Monday is what to do with Parliament, which is due to return on Tuesday.
That decision could be down to the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern alone, who can request the Speaker delay the return of Parliament by a as long as a month, on the advice of Bloomfield.
Hipkins, who also serves as leader of the House, suggested that if the return of Parliamentary sitting was delayed, the Parliament’s select committees would reconvene to provide scrutiny of the Government.
“We’ll have conversations with the other political parties before we make that decision – part of those conversations will include how we ensure democratic scrutiny in the event Parliament cannot meet in person as it ordinarily would,” Hipkins said.
“That will include considerations of select committee meetings, televising of select committee meetings and a whole variety of other things,” he said.