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Aucklanders are set for a taste of freedom from tomorrow as some Covid-19 restrictions lift after nearly 50 days of lockdown.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday released a three-step “road map” to ease lockdown in Auckland, beginning with step one: Allowing two household bubbles to mix outside in groups of up to 10 people as of midnight tonight.
Aucklanders will also be able to pursue more outdoor recreational pursuits, like hunting, fishing, and exercise classes — provided bubble rules and limits are adhered to.
Settings will be reviewed weekly.
At step two, groups of up to 25 can meet and places like libraries, museums, pools and zoos can open.
At step three, gathering sizes increase to 50, and restaurants, cafes and bars can reopen. The rest of New Zealand in level 2 will stay there for the time being, though the capacity limit of 100 people at hospitality venues will be scrapped.
Ardern gave no timeline for a shift to step two or three. She said the easing would not apply to Waikato areas just put into level 3. They would stay at level 3 for at least five days.
• LISTEN LIVE ON NEWSTALK ZB:
* 7.07am: Auckland University public health expert Collin Tukuitonga
* 7.10am: Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare
* 7.15am: Former police officer Hamish Piercy
* 7.37am: NZEI president Liam Rutherford
The Government’s decision for Auckland, seen by many as deviating from its longstanding elimination strategy, was met with confusion, outrage and even optimism from health commentators and parties from across the political spectrum.
Experts acknowledge cases are almost certain to rise, saying community transmission is now the new normal in New Zealand. They also warn the strategy could mean places outside of Auckland shifting back up the alert level scale, as cases spread.
But one epidemiologist suggested that New Zealand could re-eliminate Covid-19, when new vaccines are developed in the coming years.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett says business was “absolutely ignored” in phase 1 of the road map – while the next two phases are vague with no dates of when they will happen. He wanted clear conditions under which the city would move to a next phase.
The problem was not just hospitality – businesses for the last two months had become burdened with debt. Continued uncertainty would not help them get back to business.
“Most businesses are suffering at the moment,” Barnett told The AM Show.
“They were grateful for the resurgence payment but it should be every week, not every three weeks.”
National: 'Collection of gobbledygook'
National Party leader Judith Collins said Ardern’s road map was “certainly not a plan — it’s just a confused collection of gobbledygook”.
Collins said the plan gave no certainty and did “not answer the questions that New Zealanders have”.
“The elimination strategy is quite clearly dead, but she hasn’t replaced it with any other strategy other than to string Auckland out for another three weeks,” Collins said.
But some, including Te Pūnaha Matatini modeller Professor Shaun Hendy, struck a more optimistic tone, saying restrictions on gatherings would help mitigate the spread of the virus. He said he had not been called on to model the current restrictions in detail, but his past work had looked at the effect of restricting gatherings.
“We did look at groups of 10 and that does have an effect on curbing infection and that does have an effect on curbing transmission,” Hendy said.
“Alert level 2 when you have a 50-person [limit] doesn’t have a huge effect — it’s really when you get down to 10 that you do have an effect [on curbing transmission],” Hendy said.
But he still expected cases to rise in the interim, possibly leading to more restrictions outside Auckland.
“In that sense, it is an interim mitigation that won’t lead to really rapid growth in case numbers, I still expect to see an increase in case numbers over the next couple of weeks,” Hendy said. “It points to the fact that we really are looking to rely on vaccination to really control this — we have seen a shift in strategy.
“This was always going to come. Many of us were hoping that we would do it in a controlled fashion, at a time of our choosing, but this outbreak has forced us to confront that now and it does mean we are taking more risks,” he said.
Hendy said the Government now needed to look at what it could do to boost vaccinations.
Te Pūnaha Matatini’s Professor Michael Plank was more pessimistic, saying “community transmission of Covid-19 and ongoing measures to limit it are part of the new normal”.
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker was optimistic about the road map, but pessimistic for the trajectory of the current outbreak.
He said the looser restrictions on gatherings would make it easier for Aucklanders to live under level 3 limits, possibly helping the city sustain tougher restrictions for longer.
“We’re essentially in alert level 3 for an indefinite period,” Baker said. “If we are going to sustain alert level 3 it can’t be too onerous for people.”
But he warned that the trajectory of the virus meant Auckland could be under restrictions for some time.
“Unfortunately we may not get out of alert level 3 for a sustained period, below that you have very few constraints of the virus.”
Baker said he was concerned about the lack of a focus on equity in the road map. Auckland Māori in the 20-34 and 12-19 age groups are significantly less likely to have had a first or second dose of the Covid vaccine than the general population.
Pacific Peoples have slightly higher rates, but are still below the general rate of vaccination.
Baker had other notes of optimism too. He said that in the future, jabs that offered sterilised immunity — meaning people would not only not get sick, but would also be unable to pass the virus on — could mean New Zealand re-eliminating Covid-19.
Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins told Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan that New Zealand may never return to zero cases. “We have been trending in that direction for the past few weeks and I think people won’t be too surprised by that.”
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said the Government should not walk away from elimination yet. “We must continue on our elimination path until vaccines are approved for and rolled out to under-12s, and high coverage is achieved for all age groups, geographic areas, and population groups,” she said.
“This includes ensuring that Māori vaccine rates are high enough to protect whānau Māori.”
The Act Party rubbished the Government’s plan, saying it gave “no certainty and no end game”.
“To summarise the Prime Minister’s ‘road map’, Auckland will go to level 2 gradually at an unspecified timeframe. And there will be picnics,” leader David Seymour said. “[She] should admit she was wrong, give us a proper plan and let Aucklanders know when the finish line is in sight.”
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