Auckland to enter Alert Level 3 tonight – Expert Reaction

New Zealand will jump COVID-19 Alert Levels tonight in response to the three recently detected community cases in South Auckland.

The Auckland region will enter Alert Level 3 at 11:59pm, which requires people to stay in their bubble and maintain two metres of physical distance with others outside. The rest of New Zealand will enter Alert Level 2, which requires people to wear face masks on public transport and limits public gatherings to no more than 100 people. New Zealanders will stay in the heightened Alert Levels for at least the next three days.

The SMC asked experts to comment on this announcement.

Professor Shaun Hendy, University of Auckland, comments:

“With the discovery of new community cases in Auckland on Sunday, Auckland will move to Alert Level 3 from midnight. Although there is a plausible link to the border – one member of the family works at a business that deals with laundry from international flights – it is not yet a definitive link.

“This is why moving to Alert Level 3 is the right thing to do, as there remains a chance that these infections may have come another source, which would mean there are very likely other cases out there.

“If whole genome sequencing can link these newly discovered infections to a case that recently arrived from overseas on a plane that was serviced by this business, then this is probably a small cluster that should be quickly contained. If the sequencing can’t link this to a recent arrival then we may be looking at a scenario similar to last August. If it is one of the new variants then this level of caution is very prudent.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Shaun Hendy leads Te Pūnaha Matatini’s COVID-19 modelling programme, which receives funding from MBIE’s Covid Innovation Fund and the Tertiary Education Commission.”

Professor Nick Wilson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“This new outbreak is of concern – but the Government is acting quickly and decisively by the Alert Level shift. The officials are spot on by emphasising the most important message: get tested if you have symptoms or if you have been to places of interest.

“It might be that the genomic work will show a direct link with a type of border failure, but there might also be that there are a number of other cases in the community that are yet to be identified. Hopefully, the combination of the lockdown measures and extensive testing and contact tracing will help us get back to our valued elimination status.

“The Alert Level system was well designed and worked well initially, but the Government should have updated it – including making it mandatory at Level 3 to wear masks in all indoor public places, not just on public transport. Masks are a relatively low-cost measure that may speed the ability to get an outbreak under control.

“This appears to be the 11th border failure that New Zealand has had since August 2020 (we detailed the other 10 in a blog last week). This is far too many and it is time for the Government to act on at least some of the twelve actions we suggested in that blog to tighten border defences for the sake of public health and the economy.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Government have announced that Auckland is moving to Alert Level 3 for three days after three new cases of COVID-19 were found in a family in the community. The change in Alert Levels is a precautionary measure because there is a chance the family could have one of the more infectious variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and it isn’t yet clear how the family became infected.

“We’ve seen overseas that these variants can result in large transmission chains and clusters, so limiting people’s movements for a few days will slow down any further community transmission while the public health units gather more information. While there is a link to the border via one of the family member’s workplace, it is not as clear cut as we’ve seen in previous cases.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Sarb Johal, psychologist, comments:

Note: These comments are from Dr Johal’s blog post on his personal website, which you can see here.

“For some, this might have brought on a sense of deja vu. An evening press conference, being fronted by the Prime Minister. And lots of ‘abundance of caution’ appearing in the afternoon press conference.

“After an emergency Cabinet meeting this evening, the NZ Government has decided to #ActLikeItIsTheVariant in determining its response to the community cases detected in South Auckland in the last day. This is a wise precautionary approach, especially with the corollary that it will be reviewed every 24 hours in the three days that this change in posture has been called for. Specifically, the Auckland region enters Alert Level 3 at 11.59pm tonight for 72 hours, and the rest of New Zealand enters Alert Level 2 for the same period. The first opportunity for review will be taken at Cabinet tomorrow afternoon – February 15, 2021.

“On the balance of risks, it looks like there were too many unknowns, weighed against the known increasing proportion of cases showing up at our border that are in fact the new more virulent pandemic coronavirus variants. We have been here before, and we have succeeded in containing and stamping out the virus. This time, the virus may spread more easily, so we need to be stringent in sticking to the advice we have been given at each of the Alert Levels.

“Keep to the guidance. Many people will be working into the night on our behalf to gather the information we need to determine the best course of action. In the meantime, and when that information comes, it’s in all our interests to go hard and go early. Experience overseas shows us pretty clearly that this the lesser price to pay overall, measured in so many different ways.

“It may well be uncomfortable. Especially for those of us asked to go to Alert Level 3. It may also be difficult for many different reasons, especially if you’ve a business to run, trips you’ve been looking forward to, or employees to look out for and pay. It’s all so very difficult and tiring. Hopefully, this alert-level escalation will be short-lived. But take the time to check your preparations for the future.

“We have done this before. We can do this again.

“Play your part. Help others to play theirs. And we can do it again, together.”

No conflict of interest. Dr Johal is the author of ‘Steady: Keeping Calm in a World Gone Viral’.