Auckland’s Covid restrictions eased further – Expert Reaction

Auckland retail shops will soon be allowed to open, and up to 25 people from multiple households will be able to gather outside, when the city moves to Alert Level 3, Step 2 next Wednesday.

It is an in-principle decision which will be reviewed if the situation changes. Covid-19 public health measures will still apply, including using masks and ensuring two-metre physical distancing. Waikato will make the step down on Wednesday this week.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles, School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“I am very nervous about the step down to Step 2 in Auckland as we have yet to see the full impact of senior students returning to school on transmission. Cases are still rising, and while we are being reassured that this is not going to overwhelm our health system, we need to remember that COVID-19 is a serious disease and many unvaccinated people who catch the virus will develop Long COVID. This will have serious consequences for their health and well-being. We also have to remember that there are people in our community who have been safely vaccinated but who haven’t had a good immune response and so are still vulnerable to getting sick.

“This is why it is so important that as Auckland moves to Step 2 that everyone does everything they can to reduce the chances of the virus transmitting. That means getting vaccinated if they aren’t yet vaccinated, getting tested if they have symptoms even if vaccinated, and following the mask-wearing and distancing rules, again even if they are fully vaccinated. The data is very clear that wearing a mask will reduce the chances of the virus transmitting. But it needs to be worn covering the mouth and nose, not just the mouth or chin.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“In today’s announcement the government signalled it is moving towards a higher tolerance for cases of COVID-19 because high vaccination rates mean the risk of severe disease and hospitalisation of those cases is lower. This is true to an extent but we can’t afford to forget about cases altogether. Vaccination weakens the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths, but doesn’t remove it altogether. If case numbers grow too high, it will translate into large numbers of people needing hospital treatment. There are also other consequences of high cases, including pressure on primary care, health impacts from long covid, and disruption to schools and workplaces from illness. We need to look at the impacts of all these things from an equity point of view. Māori now account for 40-50% of cases in the current outbreak and will bear the brunt of any increase in community transmission.

“The modelling projections shown by Ashley Bloomfield today show case numbers peaking between 200 and 300 per day some time in the next 4-6 weeks as the vaccine gradually makes it harder for the virus to find new hosts, bringing the R number down. This is a reasonable expectation, however other factors may affect case numbers over this period. Any easing of restrictions that allows more contacts between people will tend to push the R number back up and could cause cases to grow faster. If our contact tracing system struggles to cope with demand that could mean cases accelerate. The planned move to step 2 next week may need to be revisited if there are signs this is happening.”

Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank has shared models and data with Gary Jackson at Counties Manukau DHB whose modelling projections were shown at today’s press conference.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“Today the Government announced restriction changes at the post-cabinet press conference for the Auckland Region, based on an in-principle decision to move to Alert level 3 step 1 to Alert level 3 step 2 a week from now, and for the Waikato where a corresponding shift to the same Alert level step on Tuesday midnight (tomorrow) would take place.

“These changes would permit retailers to operate, with face coverings and customers keeping 2 metres apart, public facilities such as libraries and museums to reopen, with the same public health measures, and the outdoor gathering limit to be increased to 25 people.

“These announcements collectively were made against the backdrop of rising COVID-19 case numbers within the community setting for Aotearoa New Zealand, rising unlinked mystery cases of unknown origin, increasing numbers of hospitalisations along with increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates.

“It was highlighted at the press conference that 75% of eligible New Zealanders aged 12 years and above, have been fully vaccinated along with 80% of eligible New Zealanders within the Auckland Region – these are important milestones. Of equal importance however, is consideration of the vaccination targets needed for Māori and Pacific communities who to date, have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreaks in Aotearoa New Zealand.

“To ensure no-one is left behind in Aotearoa New Zealand, DHBs will need to ensure at least 90 – 95% full vaccinations for Māori and Pacific peoples. This will help keep our most vulnerable communities safe from COVID-19 – and also includes protecting our children and young people.

“Our Pacific and Māori communities and respective health workforces, have been working tirelessly, mobilizing and rallying to continue doing the work that’s needed to reach everyone in our communities – and protect our most vulnerable from COVID-19. They’ve been doing this in a way that reduces barriers and builds trust for people and this work must continue and be supported.

“The actual COVID-19 case numbers for today also reflected another record-breaking day no-one wanted to see. With 162 COVID-19 cases reported, triple digits continue to be seen in daily COVID-19 case numbers as a result of Delta transmission in our communities – we’re continuing to experience first-hand how quickly and easily the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can spread and infect.

“It was also mentioned that COVID-19 case numbers were expected to peak at ~200 cases per day, however in terms of contact tracing capacity, a Roche report earlier this year concluded that New Zealand would struggle to maintain high system performance of contact tracing for a prolonged period with 100-200 cases per day. Data presented today also indicated that although hospitalisations in Aotearoa are increasing, they’ve been doing so at a slower rate than the total COVID-19 case numbers.

“Care and caution is still needed moving forward. It is critical that those who need to have a COVID-19 test still come forward to have this done, and should not be afraid to do so. It is important also that for anyone at this time who remains currently unvaccinated to get the COVID-19 vaccine as quickly as possible.

“Please get vaccinated, get tested, follow the Alert level rules and help others do the same.”

No conflict of interest declared.