Experts are amplifying calls for an alert level 2.5, dubbed 2-plus, which could enable all Kiwis not in Auckland to exit alert level 3 in the coming days.
It comes as alert level settings for the country, except for Auckland, are set to be reviewed tomorrow by Cabinet.
Members of University of Otago’s public health department have outlined what restrictions should be imposed at an alert level designed to expand business but also target areas with high risks of virus transmission.
These restrictions included:
• Mandatory masking in all indoor settings outside the home, including workplaces, secondary schools and shops.
• Mandatory QR code scanning.
• Maintain alert level 2 physical distancing requirements.
• Indoor gatherings limited to 25 people, 50 for outdoor gatherings.
• Closing potential super spreader locations including bars, night clubs, gyms and churches.
• Introduce temporary zero-alcohol limit for driving to reduce demand on emergency and health services.
The group, made up of Dr Leah Grout, Prof Nick Wilson, Dr Jennifer Summers, Dr Amanda Kvalsvig and Prof Michael Baker, also recommended enhancing alert level 2 – alongside a general update of the alert level system to reflect the risk of airborne transmission.
Such a proposal isn’t new. Auckland went into an informal alert level 2.5 in August last year, which imposed smaller gathering restrictions on the city as the rest of the country moved to level 2.
Speaking to the Herald, Wilson said New Zealand’s alert level framework was dated and didn’t reflect what had been learned about how the virus – particularly the Delta variant – spread.
He believed through closing high-risk sites like bars and churches and masking essential workers indoors, those not in Auckland could move out of level 3 this week.
“I think that would be reasonable with the trajectory we’re on,” Wilson said.
The timing of Auckland’s next alert level change was more difficult to forecast, Wilson conceded.
However, he said if cases continued to decrease and wastewater tests were consistently negative, Auckland could transition to level 3 in a matter of days.
Historically, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been very cautious in moving outbreak hotspots down in alert levels – citing her reluctance to “yo-yo” between levels.
While he agreed such decisions shouldn’t be made hastily, Wilson said earlier transitions between alert levels could be achieved with a more nuanced system.
“Even if there’s a 10 per cent chance of going back up [alert levels] … I think that’s a worthwhile risk to take.”
Wilson cited the recent boom in wastewater testing as an effective surveillance tool, which could enable earlier alert level transitions.
On Thursday, the Herald reported a new ESR-led study which indicated wastewater testingcould detect 87 per cent of cases in a shedding model of 10 positive cases per 10,000 people.
The virus could also be detected in a positive case’s wastewater prior to them developing symptoms – which would help reduce the chance of infected people unconsciously spreading Covid in the community.
However, Wilson warned of glaring holes in restrictions imposed on essential workplaces, which should be the central focus of any alert level system upgrade.
“There could be factory workers one metre apart on a production line and there’s no requirement to wearing masks, this should have been sorted out about a year ago.
“This is just such a low-cost way to speed our way out of lockdown.”
At today’s 1pm press conference, director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said advice on strengthening the alert level system was being developed ahead of tomorrow’s Cabinet decision.
“We have come up with some additional advice around strengthening alert level 2 arrangements.”
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson confirmed any changes would be announced tomorrow.
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