Covid-19 Delta outbreak: Auckland and Northland isolated as country races to freedom

From midnight tonight, Auckland will once again be cut off from the majority of the country, with fears the city could be heading for New Zealand’s longest ever level 4 lockdown.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed yesterday that the rest of the country south of Auckland will move to alert level 3 as of midnight.

Northland will join the rest of the country at alert level 3 at midnight on Thursday, leaving Auckland alone at level 4 – its isolation enforced by strict police barriers set up across the regional boundary

The bad news doesn’t end there.

While those level 3 settings will be reviewed by the Cabinet on September 6, Auckland’s settings will not be reviewed until September 13.

That means that the rest of the country could be heading to the relative freedom of alert level 2 long before Auckland has even left level 4.

University of Auckland Covid-19 modeller Shaun Hendy said it was “hard to tell right now” whether Auckland might be able to start moving down the alert level scale then.

Hendy said the two-week extension is “definitely the shortest plausible duration”.

“If numbers continue to fall steadily this week – and that is possible – then two weeks may be about right. If a clear downward trend doesn’t emerge this week, then we may be looking at three to four weeks or more,” Hendy said.

If Auckland’s level 4 is extended a week beyond the current review, the city would have spent longer at level 4 than during the first lockdown, which lasted for just under five weeks.

Ardern offered a carrot to Auckland – as well as the rest of the country, saying “the more we do to limit our contact, the faster we exit these restrictions”.

But she also warned that “level three does not mean freedom, it means caution.”

So far, the outlook is mixed. Monday delivered a relatively low number of new cases, just 53. That compares with more than 80 new cases each day over the weekend. The hope is the drop is the beginning of a trend for lower daily cases, and not a blip.

While, for most of us, alert level 3 is disparaged as “level 4 with takeaways”, for businesses it means a lot more.

Treasury’s most recent estimates has the economy operating at 25-30 per cent below normal at alert level 4.

At alert level 3, it operates at 15 to 20 per cent below normal.

Auckland’s legion of retail and hospitality businesses will look across the regional boundary with envy, watching their counterparts in the rest of the country fire up takeaway and click and collect services.

The Restaurant Association responded to Auckland’s alert level extension by calling for compensation for the sacrifice businesses are making.

“The Auckland hospitality industry in particular is paying a heavy price for the elimination strategy,” said chief executive Marisa Bidois.

Bidois said recent feedback from members showed whilst they largely support level 4, 75 per cent wouldn’t be financially viable after two weeks at this level.

“Our industry knows what it needs to do to help us to eliminate Covid once again, but we feel that there should be specific compensation offered to those who stand to lose the most.”

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said that most Aucklanders, while not liking the extension of alert level 4, would understand the necessity for it given the Delta variant is highly contagious and spreads rapidly.

“We all want to get back to life as normal as quickly as possible, but for that to happen the lockdown has to stay in place until the spread of the virus has been suppressed.

“The alternative is allowing huge numbers of people to become unwell, sometimes with lasting consequences, people to die in their hundreds and our hospitals and intensive care units to be overwhelmed.”

Goff said Auckland, the gateway to New Zealand and the area with most of the quarantine facilities, has carried the burden for much of the country and called on the Government to help the region to meet the costs of the lockdown.

“Auckland has already over the last 18 months been at higher lockdown levels than the rest of the country, and this will continue. Aucklanders are more vulnerable and at greater risk.”

Meanwhile in Parliament, which is gearing up for the return of normal sitting on Tuesday, Ardern and National leader Judith Collins yesterday traded blows over the state of the vaccine rollout and the length of lockdown.

Ardern again acknowledged that the vaccine rollout could not proceed at its current pace because supplies could not keep pace with demand.

The Government is currently trying to secure extra doses of the vaccine to cope with the surge in demand, but has not ruled out measures that would slow the rollout.

Opposition leader Judith Collins said the rollout was “as slow as a slow waltz”,and said the biggest thing the Government could do is to “get more vaccines and get more people vaccinated”.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins was forced to concede he was wrong when he said that the remainder of New Zealand’s order of 10 million doses would arrive by the end of the third quarter – September 30.

Hipkins clarified the record on Monday saying he had misinterpreted his advice, leading to his calculation being out by a month.

­”I was advised that agreement had been reached with Pfizer for all our vaccines to arrive by October, which I interpreted to be in the third quarter,” Hipkins said.

“I was subsequently advised the delivery schedule was through to the end of October. I accept that my statement at the time was not totally correct.”

National is putting pressure on the Government to “supercharge” the rollout and vaccinate vulnerable people, especially communities in South Auckland.

Collins also hinted at frustrations in the South Island, which is following the rest of the country down the alert level scale, despite having had no cases in the latest outbreak.

Meanwhile, an anti-vaccination protest is expected to descend on Parliament tomorrow, angry at the rollout.

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