Auckland, September 15, 2020
Despite protests by political parties, leaders and some sections of the business sector, some experts and average Aucklanders are of the view that the country’s largest city should not move down from its current lockdown unless there is certainty that the pandemic will not hit back.
There was a sigh of relief on Monday, September 14, 2020 when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the current Alert Level 2.5 will continue for another week (until 1159 pm on Wednesday, September 23, 2020) and that her Cabinet will meet on September 21, 2020 to decide if there was advise and evidence that Covid-19 is under check.
“We will move from Alert Level 2.5 only if there is appropriate advice from our health officials backed by solid evidence. We do not want to stay under lockdown any more than it is necessary. New Zealanders have sacrificed a lot and we should squander that away,” she said, speaking at a media conference in Otago.
She said that the rest of the country will remain on Alert Level 2 and that a decision on this status will also be taken next week.
Almost all political leaders condemned the decision but more about this later.
For well over a month, at least two famous Epidemiologists have been vociferous in their thinking that there ought to be considered decision before lifting lockdown levels.
Otago University Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker rightly believes that we should have a better elimination strategy, achieved through better contact tracing, testing and mask use rather than lockdown restrictions.
But he cautioned that case numbers should be carefully watched in the short-term.
“We need a more nuanced approach. That could prove the path for New Zealand’s future elimination strategy. The government’s new orders about use of masks in public places could lead to relaxed physical distancing measures on planes, trains and buses,” he told New Zealand Herald last month.
University of Auckland Modeller and Physicist and Te Pūnaha Matatini Director Professor Shaun Hendy said that although public health response has been very effective since the first case was detected, there is still a need for population-wide measures to manage the risk around the edges of the current cluster.
“We need more time to be sure that we have stamped out any further chains of transmission that might still be active, despite the best efforts of our contact tracers,” he told the same publication.
Professor Hendy said that Covid-19 is an elusive disease that is very hard to manage, as had been seen through some of the infections that occurred before Auckland went to Level 3.
“Even something as straightforward as sharing a bus ride or an elevator is a risk. Our modelling suggests that we need more time in alert level 3 in Auckland before we can be confident the spread is under control,” he said.
New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters was among the first to object to the continuance of current Alert Levels.
“There is not been a case in the South Island since April this year and round the rest of the country very similar results apart from four in Tokoroa and they were [contracted] all in Auckland. This is costing hundreds and hundreds of millions … every extra week that we’re not required to do it,” he said.
National Party Leader Judith Collins, speaking at an education policy announcement, described the decision to extend the Alert Levels as “very political.”
“We are starting to wonder very much because we do not the same advice that the Prime Minister has, and she does not share it. In Auckland, campaigning is reduced to essentially handing out pamphlets and doing things on social media because there are only ten people in a room. So, it is very tough,” she said.
Ms Ardern said that the Cabinet has agreed in principle that rest of New Zealand will move to Alert Level 1 on Monday, September 21, 2020, contingent on contingent on cases tracking the way they are doing so currently.
“The move will be confirmed on Monday. The Level 2 precautions continue to act as a safety barrier against flare-ups for the rest of New Zealand. it has been two weeks – one transmission cycle of the virus – since Auckland moved to level 2.5. In that time, we have identified a further 36 cases in the community – all are associated with the wider Auckland cluster and most were people who had a known link to the cluster and so were already isolated,” she said.