Day of alerts, up and down

"Bugger it" were the Prime Minister’s first thoughts when she was jolted awake by an earthquake yesterday morning, before deciding whether Auckland’s Covid outbreak was ring-fenced.

The Beehive emergency bunker sprang into action to manage the tsunami threat from the swarm of earthquakes in the Pacific, which passed without injury or damage.

Later in the day, nine floors above the bunker, Cabinet decided to lift Auckland’s Alert Level 3 lockdown and to ease restrictions across the rest of New Zealand from 6am tomorrow.

Retailers and hospitality outlets rejoiced at the news, which will let Aucklanders burst their bubbles to visit shops, cafe and bars, or just go and see family and friends.

America’s Cup racing can get under way on the Waitemata Harbour, and crowds can also flock to Sky Stadium in Wellington to see the Black Caps and White Ferns play tomorrow.

If the country’s Covid situation does not worsen, Ms Ardern said the Super City could move to Alert Level 1 before next weekend.

Beyond the alert level decision, Ms Ardern said she will outline what the vaccination campaign will mean for New Zealand’s Covid elimination strategy.

The Ministry of Health has started vaccinating frontline workers but its own polling has shown that more than 550,000 New Zealanders are unlikely to accept the jab.

The poll, done in September and December last year found many Kiwis wanted to wait and see if others developed side effects before being convinced of the vaccine’s safety.

Despite five days straight of no new community cases, Ms Ardern said Cabinet did not want to lift lockdown early to give the best chance for any positive tests to "manifest" themselves.

Keeping Auckland in Alert Level 2 for another week would allow for a full 14-day transmission cycle to ensure there were no cases that had not already been ring-fenced.

Level 2 will take effect in time for church services to go ahead tomorrow, but Ms Ardern reminded congregations to limit gatherings to fewer than 100 people and to ensure there was good contact tracing.

And after a week being accused of sending out mixed messages, the Government has taken an additional step of issuing a Health Act Section 70 order requiring contacts from the Valentine’s Day outbreak to isolate and get tested.

"It does make it very crystal clear to everybody that there is a formal legal requirement for people to do this," Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said.

The order applies to everyone who was at the City Fitness gym with Case L and anyone already contacted by public health officials and told they are a close, casual plus or casual contact.

It legally requires them be tested and stay home until they get their results.

The order also means health officials can visit those people’s home or place of work to ensure they are following the instructions.

Dr Bloomfield pointed out a legal framework already underpinned what contacts of cases were required to do.

Issuing a Section 70 order makes the instructions simpler and reinforces the legal requirement. Maximum penalties for not complying are six months in prison or a fine of up to $4000.

Ten test results are still outstanding for people who were at City Fitness on February 20 and 26 but eight were tested by yesterday.

Finding services had not able to contact two people and ensure they had been tested.

Dr Bloomfield said he considered the contacts to be low risk, as they were at the gym during the earlier visit, but he was emphatic that they would be tracked down.

"They will be found. They will be isolated and tested. And they will remain isolated."

That more than 50,000 tests had been done, mostly in Auckland gave Dr Bloomfield confidence there had been widespread surveillance for the virus. Roughly 6000 people connected to the outbreak had also been contacted by public health staff.

Ms Ardern and Dr Bloomfield said even with the benefit of hindsight they still would have put Auckland into a week of lockdown because they could not take any chances with the highly contagious UK variant.

Ms Ardern summed up the outbreak as "unpredictable" because there were fewer cases than expected, given how easily it had transmitted between some people.

She also recognised people were getting weary of the restrictions.

"We may not be in the devastating position much of the rest of the world finds itself in but an elimination strategy can still feel like hard work and it is completely natural to feel fatigued.

"Covid is hard work for everyone. Thank you for pushing through once again."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff welcomed the move back to Alert Level 2 and said co-operation had helped to ensure that the initial cases detected in the community did not spread any further.

"Given this is Auckland’s fourth lockdown, the vaccination of Aucklanders needs to be prioritised over areas less impacted by the virus and I will continue to advocate to the Government for this."

— The New Zealand Herald

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