Fears travel spike could derail level 1 plans

Air NZ says travel remained very restricted. Photo: supplied
Air New Zealand yesterday sold 70,000 domestic fares in six hours. Photo: supplied
Air New Zealand yesterday sold 70,000 domestic fares in six hours - 10 times the number of last Monday - but a scientist says a spike in travellers leaving Auckland could derail the Government's plan to move to level 1.

And Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said today she had spoken to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last night to ensure the All Blacks' two Bledisloe Cup matches in New Zealand would still go ahead in October.

"I just wanted to make sure that he was aware... I was made aware last night that there were a few little rumblings around the arrangements that we had in place," Ardern told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking.

"Always better to get ahead of these things before they escalate. Given we had a bit of a deal - we go there, they come here, we both benefit. I thought he might want to know there were a few discussions as to whether the Aussies were still going to come."

She believed the Australians were still coming. "There's no reason for them not to."

She said the risk profile for the Australians was different for teams in the wider Rugby Championship - South Africa and Argentina. In the case of the Argentina team, some players had tested positive for Covid.

She said the Director general of health had advised that the Australians could start training after three days and the full squad after six days - a relaxation of earlier proposed rules. "Quarantine shouldn't be an issue... here risk is lower."

She denied she had made up the line of "Sanzaar politics" being to blame for the loss of the Rugby Championship - the tournament is now set to be held in Australia.

"Commercial arrangements played a part," she said, without being specific other than to refer to broadcasting arrangements and other money behind the tournament.

Meanwhile, a delighted Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said Kiwis had been quick to book domestic holidays and trips after the Government yesterday eased physical distancing on planes and indicated most of New Zealand - aside from Auckland - could be in level 1 by Tuesday.

The announcements saw Air New Zealand introduce 160,000 fares of $50 or less into the market. Soon after that Jetstar announced it was roaring back to this country's domestic skies later this week.

Foran said 70,000 airfares had been sold in six hours - compared with 7000 airfares on Monday last week.

"They [travellers] are going all over the country - the load factors have been solid everywhere," Foran told Hosking.

"Not everyone is going to Queenstown... they're going to all kinds of places from Hokitika, to Invercargill, to Kerikeri, Gisborne, Napier. We're very pleased with this situation."

Most airlines tried to operate at 80 percent capacity - operating at 50 percent wasn't viable. "Once we can get this middle-seat open, which we have with people wearing masks, that's a big deal for us."

Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern announced an extension of the current alert level settings - level "2.5" in Auckland and level 2 for the rest of the country - but teased a relaxing of restrictions next week.

If cases continued to dwindle, Auckland could have larger gatherings from next Wednesday while the rest of the country could move to level 1 from next Tuesday.

In declining level 1 freedoms yesterday, Ardern referenced modelling from Auckland University Professor Shaun Hendy's team, which said there was a 20 to 30 percent risk of Covid-19 spreading outside Auckland.

That will shrink as case numbers continue to fall, but Hendy said it will grow with an increase in the number of travellers leaving Auckland.

"Masks and the ability to trace passengers will mitigate to a certain extent, but still it's a concern to hear lots of extra flight seats will be available."

Travel is expected to surge following Ardern's announcement to relax physical distancing rules for planes, buses and trains, though everyone will still have to wear masks.

That means no more seating restrictions, a move welcomed by struggling tourism and hospitality operators who have seen customers limited by alert level restrictions.

Air NZ immediately announced additional seats, including 9000 extra seats during the upcoming school holidays.

Jetstar announced a resumption of flights from Thursday, including dozens of flights out of Auckland weekly.

Cabinet will meet on Monday, September 21, to view the latest data before deciding whether to confirm the easing of restrictions in Auckland and the rest of the country.

But it will not have data about whether higher traveller numbers might have contributed to any spread of Covid-19 outside Auckland.

That's because it usually takes a week to 10 days before any changes in settings come through in daily case numbers.

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said it was a calculated risk.

"We might get away with it, we might not."

Baker has been calling for fuller planes and buses as long as people used masks, which was adopted by director general of health Ashley Bloomfield in his advice to Cabinet yesterday.

But Baker also supported a travel ban for hotspots at level 2.5.

"The regional model doesn't really work without it because you are at risk of spreading the virus all around the country - potentially.

"I don't think anywhere in New Zealand should be going to level 1 anytime soon because there's no barrier to potentially having a larger outbreak."

Without a travel ban, he said continued protections were still necessary for the rest of the country.

He and other public health experts have pushed for more nuanced alert levels, including a level 1.5 with mask-wearing in higher risk indoor settings and a 50-person limit on social gatherings.

Health officials believe they have the positive virus cases they know about under control.

"The key issue we're looking at, both in Auckland and outside of Auckland, including in the South Island, is whether there are other cases that have been seeded in the community over the last couple of weeks," Bloomfield told Mediaworks.

As modelling from Hendy's team showed, there was a 20 to 30 percent risk of Covid-19 spreading outside Auckland.

"By around next Monday, our feeling is if there are no further surprises, particularly outside of Auckland, then we've got a high level of confidence there won't be seeded events outside of Auckland," Bloomfield said.

However, Hospitality New Zealand said ongoing restrictions will push some operators to "the brink of collapse".

"A silver lining is that the social distancing requirements on public transport has been eased. That will come as a big relief to our hospitality tourism operators," chief executive Julie White said.

Bloomfield told Hosking that he "absolutely" understood the economic impact of ongoing restrictions; he was part of the all-of-Government Covid response team that met daily, and Treasury was part of that meeting.

There was only one new case yesterday, a girl aged between 5 and 9 who was connected to the Auckland cluster and already in isolation.

There were 96 active cases including three people in hospital, two of them in ICU.

Hendy backed Cabinet's decision despite concerns about the 89 close contacts who have been told to stay at home after sharing exercise classes with a Jet Park quarantine nurse at Les Mills in Takapuna.

The nurse's positive test for Covid-19 was reported on Sunday.

The Les Mills classes took place on Wednesday and Thursday last week, meaning any new cases should emerge before Cabinet makes its next alert level decision on Monday.

Hendy said fewer people travelled from Auckland to the South Island than around the North Island, so the risk of spread to the South Island was less - 5 to 10 percent.

NZ First leader Winston Peters, National Party leader Judith Collins and Act leader David Seymour all called for the South Island, which has not had a case in four months, to come out of level 2.

"The director general of health has stated that the Covid-19 outbreak in Auckland is contained," said Peters, who was part of Cabinet's discussions yesterday.

"Additionally, he believes there is a low risk of transmission outside of Auckland."

Peters campaigned in the South Island last week and said people were already in a level 1 mentality.

"Not because they are against the Government's Covid-19 response, but because they have applied their own 'common sense' test to their risk of exposure to the virus."

Ardern said it wasn't unusual for NZ First ministers to take a different view, and Peters' comments were being made in the context of an election campaign.

Comments

If Ashley Bloomfield thinks we are safe enough, then we must be safe. I will take his word over Peters or Collins any day.

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