Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised a phased end to Covid restrictions in Auckland, beginning Tuesday night.
Ardern promised a three-step plan to transition “safely and carefully” over the coming weeks.
From midnight Tuesday, bubbles will be able to mix, but only outdoors and with some restrictions still in place.
“From 11:59pm Tuesday, Auckland will remain in Alert Level 3 but several key changes will occur. People will be able to connect with loved ones OUTDOORS with no more than two households at a time, up to a maximum of 10 people; early childhood education will return for all; and people can move around Auckland for recreation such as beach visits and hunting,” Ardern said.
The second step will allow more retail to open, under a hybrid level 2.
“At step two retail will open their doors, with the usual measures of wearing facemasks and keeping up physical distancing; public facilities such as pools and zoos will open; and the number of people who can meet OUTDOORS will increase to 25,” Ardern said.
Ardern did not give a date for when this step would begin.
The final step would be similar to what is currently known as “Delta level 2”.
“Step three will bring back those higher risk settings. Hospitality will open – seated, separated and with a limit of 50; close contact businesses like hairdressers will also open with mask use and physical distancing; and gatherings will also then extend to 50,” Ardern said.
“Cabinet will review each step weekly to ensure it’s safe to move before confirming the next step. The wage subsidy will continue to be available.
'Tail more like a tentacle'
Ardern said Delta had been more infectious. “What we have called a long tail has been more like a tentacle that has been difficult to shake.”
She said the restrictions so far had given the “gift of time to get vaccinated”. The lockdowns at the start were “the only choice” given the low rates of vaccination in August.
Those rates had now rocketed, and modelling was showing that the number of cases we were seeing was 50 per cent less than we would have seen without vaccinations.
“While we are transitioning from our current strategy to a new way of doing things, we are not there yet.” She said that would need more people to be fully vaccinated across more suburbs.
Ardern said the challenge was keeping people safe while making everyday life a bit easier.
She said the health advice to date had been able to control the outbreak “but the return to zero has been extremely difficult”.
She said that was “ok” because the vaccines were now offering some protection. Cases still had to be found and controlled.
“This was a change in approach we were always going to make over time. The Delta outbreak has meant we have had to accelerate that.”
Ardern said the phased approach of lifting restrictions would be done carefully. The changes allowing households to meet outside were made because science had shown that Covid did not spread as much outdoors.
She said outdoor gatherings were the safest option – and pleaded with Aucklanders to keep those meetings with other people outside.
She also urged them to wear masks, stay distanced from each other and stay away from other groups.
Ardern said limits of groups of 10 in a bubble at ECEs and infection control processes should be a low-risk scenario. Parents would have to wear masks for pick up and drop-offs, and ECE teachers were encouraged to agree to regular tests and vaccinations.
Parents could expect centres to let them know when they were able to re-open, Ardern said.
The Ministry of Education was working on measures to better protect children who were under 12, including looking at mask use and other measures.
Ardern said the re-opening of schools was tentatively set for October 18, but that remained under review.
The final decision would be announced in advance of that date. She urged parents of over-12s to get children vaccinated prior to then.
Wage subsidy payments would continue while Auckland was at any stage of level 3. The boundaries around Auckland would remain in place, and that would be regularly reviewed.
Ardern said the easing would not apply to the Waikato regions recently put into level 3. Those areas would stay at level 3 for at least the five days originally set.
The rest of New Zealand will remain at alert level two. Ardern said the recent cases outside Auckland’s boundaries illustrated why that was important.
“We don’t want to risk unncessary lockdowns.”
However, level 2 settings would be eased – hospitality venues would still have to be seated and distanced – but a cap of 100 would no longer apply. The limit of 100 would continue to apply to other gatherings.
Ardern said she would set out a plan for the rest of the vaccination rollout tomorrow, and a testing plan would follow later in the week.
Even with high vaccine rates, the goal would be to control the virus and stamp out outbreaks. However, the vaccines gave more options to do that.
“Maintaining control of Covid, easing restrictions, that relies on the vaccines.”
Asked about the easing of restrictions given higher case numbers over the last few days, Ardern said the decision relied heavily on health advice.
Officials had looked at individual restrictions to see which had the least risk attached to them and could make people’s lives easier.
They were comfortable in allowing two households, up to 10 people, to meet outside.
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the original advice was to maintain level 3 until today, and the easing should be done methodically, carefully and safely. “We looked carefully at the things in each step that would not increase the risk much at all.”
Asked about the elimination strategy ending, Ardern said “it has served us incredibly well, and was the right thing to do”.
“Over time we were always going to have to move to a place, and intended to move to a place, where our vaccines helped us.”
She said the outbreak had accelerated that move away from elimination. While vaccination would not be enough on its own, it would mean they did not need to rely on the hardest of the restrictions.
Asked if there was a chance of re-imposing harder restrictions if cases ballooned, Ardern said that was why they had not yet set dates for easing restrictions in the future.
Asked why she was abandoning elimination given it still seemed possible to return to zero cases, Ardern said it was a bit crude to say it was being abandoned.
However, she said even with hard lockdowns, they had not been able to return to zero cases – although that was not as dangerous as it would have been in the past because of vaccines.
Asked if she was worried about the impact on groups that were still at low level of vaccination, such as Māori, Ardern said that was why some strict restrictions were still in place. It was to allow more time for those people to get vaccinated.
She would not set a level at which she would consider the Māori vaccination rate was high enough to ease more restriction.
Asked if she was worried about compliance waning in Auckland, Ardern said the vast majority were not breaching rules, such as by going to protests. However, she said part of the equation was in assessing the ability of people to stick to the level 3 restrictons.
Ardern said she was relying on people to follow the rules – and stick to the level 3 rules other than the few eased restrictions.
“Don’t feel tempted, if the weather turns bad, to switch over to meeting in your homes. Being outside is what makes the difference here.”
On those coming out of Auckland as essential workers, Ardern said surveillance testing was not fail-safe and that was why the rest of New Zealand was staying at level 2.
Asked what criteria he would apply to assess whether to allow shops to re-open, or ease more restrictions, Bloomfield said the criteria were the same as those used in the past.
They included the number of cases, the nature of the cases, the pressure on the health system and capacity of contact tracing and testing. it would also take into account vaccination rates.
“Keeping the case numbers as low as possible, even if they’re not at zero, is absolutely material,” Bloomfield said.
Three more Raglan cases, MIQ absconder
Ardern has said somebody had absconded from MIQ – but been re-captured in the last two hours.
Dr Bloomfield said there were three further cases on top of the 29 announced today – the three were household members of the Raglan case.
He said he was expecting 25-30 more cases in the near future, the contacts of today’s cases.
Bloomfield emphasised that vaccines were the key to preventing overload in ICU facilities. Whilst 50 per cent of eligible New Zealanders were now fully vaccinated, only six per cent of those in the outbreak were vaccinated.
All 29 of today’s cases were in Auckland or Waikato – and daily case numbers have risen since Auckland moved down from level 4 almost two weeks ago.
The number of unlinked cases had also risen.
Yesterday, Ardern announced Raglan, Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Ngāruawāhia, and Hamilton City in Waikato would be at level three for at least five days as officials tested for further spread in those areas, outside Auckland’s boundaries.
Ardern today said anybody who had been in Raglan or Hamilton should check the locations of interest and get tested if they had any symptoms.
New cases in Auckland included a taxi driver who may have been infectious for two days while driving passengers, and a patient who went to Auckland City Hospital’s emergency department yesterday and was admitted to intensive care for non-Covid reasons.
A baby has also tested positive at North Shore Hospital, and the parent of a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Auckland Hospital.
As of today, there are 15 epidemiologically linked subclusters – seven are active, one is contained and seven are dormant.
There are another 14 unlinked subclusters – five are active, one is contained and eight are dormant.
Thirty people are in hospital with Covid: three in North Shore, 13 in Middlemore, 13 in Auckland and one in Waikato.
Five patients are in intensive care or high dependency units.
Judith Collins attacks plan
National leader Judith Collins said the new plan on lifting restrictions was “nothing more than a vague wishlist”.
“Today’s announcement confirms what most New Zealanders – especially Aucklanders – have come to learn only too well over the past seven weeks of lockdown,” Collins said.
“The Government is completely out of ideas. Elimination has failed but, while the Prime Minister says we’ve now moved to a ‘transition’ stage, the strategy is fundamentally unchanged. The Prime Minister’s supposed roadmap to recovery is nothing more than a vague wishlist she tinkers with as dictated by the situation she reacts to. Where is the vision?
“The fact is that Jacinda Ardern has no answers to problems that she and her Government promised us were under control. The situation is now, very clearly, out of control and worsening every day. As a result of their incompetence and their incoherent supposed ‘strategy’, New Zealand is stuck in a lockdown limbo with no answers and no way out.
“Enough is enough. Time has run out. The PM must admit she and her Government have failed. Own up to your mistakes. Change direction. Be bold. There are choices.”
Phil Goff – vaccination key
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says that changes “will be welcomed by many”, but vaccination was the key to more freedoms.
“None of us like being in a lockdown, but most recognise the risks that a major spread of the virus would cause while so many Aucklanders are still not fully vaccinated.
“You only need to look across the Tasman at Melbourne and Sydney to know that if the contagion spreads out of control, thousands would need to be hospitalised, hundreds may die, and the hospital system would struggle to cope. Studies have shown that about 95 per cent of people who received both doses of the vaccine were protected against getting seriously ill.
“What is really clear is that the fastest path out of lockdown is to get Aucklanders vaccinated. The priority has to be to encourage the more than 200,000 Aucklanders who have not yet got their first dose to do so. Removing restrictions depends on making inroads into those numbers.”
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