Coronavirus: What you need to know about New Zealand's alert level extension

New Zealand's alert levels are currently set to remain as they are until at least next week, but new changes have been made in the country's COVID-19 response.

Auckland's alert level 2.5 settings and the rest of New Zealand's level 2 restrictions have been extended, although both of these will be reviewed next week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday Cabinet will review Auckland's alert level on September 21 and there will be a view to increase the size of gatherings if the cluster has been contained. If this change is agreed, it would come into effect from September 23.

The rest of New Zealand will stay in alert level 2 until 11:59pm on September 21, where Cabinet has agreed in principle it will move to alert level 1. This is contingent on case numbers staying as they are and this move will be confirmed on Monday when Cabinet meets again.

While alert levels remain unchanged for now, physical distancing restrictions have been lifted on public transport to allow more passengers to travel at the same time.

Here's what the alert level extensions and new physical distancing guidelines mean for New Zealanders.

Why the alert levels have been extended

Ardern said modelling for the Ministry of Health suggests there's a 25 percent chance cases could move outside of the Auckland region. So even while cases are contained in the city, inter-regional travel poses a risk of spreading the virus throughout the rest of the country.

"We haven't had many days without new cases appearing in Auckland and it only requires one person travelling and attending a super-spreader event somewhere else in the country and we could be looking at further restrictions elsewhere," she said.

"So the level two precautions we have in place continue to act as a safety barrier for flare-ups in the rest of New Zealand."

The last time the country moved from level 2 to level 1, New Zealanders had spent 26 days at level 2 and there had been 17 days of no new cases, Ardern said.

"So far we have spent 14 days at what we are calling [level] 2.5 in Auckland and have had cases in the community continue to emerge every day bar one," she said

"While no new community cases is not a measure in and of itself for moving down levels, as we know more cases will emerge from this cluster's tail, these cases can continue to pose risks.

"So while our aim is to speedily move down alert levels safely, we also need to be focused on the future, on getting back to level 1,  but in a sustained way and not rushing there only to have to bounce out of it soon after."

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

Why the South Island hasn't moved to level 1 yet

The South Island hasn't seen any COVID-19 cases as a result of Auckland's community transmission so far, but Ardern said it hasn't moved to level 1 as a safety precaution.

She reiterated that since there is regional travel and people are visiting the South Island, there could be cases that emerge outside of Auckland.

"I want to make sure we're keeping everyone in the South Island safe, because level 2 restrictions are a better way of managing outbreaks than having level 3 restrictions because we didn't," she said.

"I think we do need to make sure we're protecting the South Island while we are ensuring we've got good containment of this cluster."

Public transport and inter-regional travel

Face masks are still compulsory to wear on public transport at alert level 2 or below, but physical distancing is being relaxed on domestic flights and public transport such as buses, trains and ferries.

The Ministry of Health said it has seen reports that passengers on public transport are taking the wearing of face masks seriously and are regularly scanning QR codes onboard.

"The advisory by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Transport for recommended seating configurations on public transport that promoted physical distancing have now been revoked, effective immediately," it said.

"People should continue to observe physical distancing where possible."

Airlines and transport operators that require pre-bookings were advised of these changes and can now accept higher volumes of bookings.

"If you are travelling, to work, school or on holiday, please remember to practise the core hygiene measures - disinfect hands, cough into your elbow and, most importantly, if you are unwell, please stay home," the Ministry of Health said.