Coronavirus live updates: Latest on Auckland community cases - Thursday, February 18

After a short, sharp lockdown, Auckland is back under alert level 2 while the rest of New Zealand has dropped to alert level 1.

The moves comes despite three new community cases of COVID-19 being reported on Wednesday. All three, however, are connected to the original trio from the weekend and there is no evidence yet - either from community testing or wastewater testing - of any wider parallel transmission.

Of the 31 close contacts of the original cases, 30 have tested negative while the last is one of the three new positive cases. The test results of more than 360 casual-plus contacts - many from Papatoetoe High School - remain outstanding, but 1159 have tested negative. Contact tracing is now underway for the three new cases.

What you need to know:

  • Auckland is now under alert level 2 - which requires gatherings to remain limited - while the rest of the country is under alert level 1. This will be reviewed on Monday
  • There are now six community cases of COVID-19, including three cases recorded on Wednesday. One of these new cases (referred to as Case D) is a classmate of one of the infected trio from Sunday (Case A), while the other two are within Case D's household.
  • A total of 31 close contacts and 1523 casual plus contacts have been identified at Papatoetoe High School. Of the close contacts, 30 have tested negative and one person has tested positive. Of the casual plus contacts, 1159 have returned negative results, there is one positive, and 363 are outstanding
  • Papatoetoe High School won't reopen until Monday and all students and staff will be required to have had a negative test for COVID-19 before returning
  • Wastewater testing for Monday has found no evidence of community cases of COVID-19 in the wastewater sampled
  • An updated list of locations visited by the three cases can be viewed here. There are instructions for individuals who were also at the same locations as the cases at the same time 
  • An up-to-date list of testing locations is available here.

These live updates have finished.

6:45pm - Dr Ashley Bloomfield has clarified the difference between a COVID-19 death and COVID-19-related death following public confusion.

The Director-General of Health was asked during Thursday afternoon's update to clarify the difference between people who have died with COVID-19 and those who have died from COVID-19 and if there was any difference in how they were recorded.

Read the full story here.

6:15pm - A total of 27,412 people have been tested for COVID-19 across Auckland since Sunday, the Northern Region Health Coordination Centre (NRHCC) says. This data is as of 4pm Thursday.

This ranks as the region's second-busiest COVID-19 testing period on record following the peak levels set during the Auckland outbreak in August.

NRHCC lead Margie Apa says the high volume of testing undertaken should provide reassurance that every effort was being made to see if the virus was in the community.

"People can be confident that if there was any COVID in the community, it would have been detected through this intensive testing period," she says.

"The fact that it hasn't - outside of the limited number of positive cases confirmed through close contact tracing - should reassure the public and provide comfort about the move back to alert level 2."

Apa also acknowledged the "outstanding effort" of the Papatoetoe High School community who have sought a test.

"Everyone in the school community - staff, students and household members - has been asked to get a test. If you have not had a test since Monday 15 February, please do so as soon as you can."

The pop-up testing centre at the school will remain open this weekend and nearby community testing centres will open with extended hours.

A list of testing centres in Auckland is available here.

Coronavirus live updates: Latest on Auckland community cases - Thursday, February 18
Photo credit: Getty Images

6pm - It's time for Newshub Live at 6pm. You can watch online here or tune in on Three.

5:30pm - Passengers booked on the next flight from Auckland to the Cook Islands will not be allowed to enter the country, the Cook Islands Cabinet has announced. This flight was due to arrive on Friday afternoon (Cook Islands time).

Cabinet made this decision after meeting on Thursday (New Zealand time) to discuss Auckland's latest community cases.

"Cabinet appreciates that this will be most unwelcome news to all those intending to travel back to Rarotonga this week. However, Cabinet made its decision based on the up to the minute advice it received," Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown says.

"Cabinet was firm with the view that while the risk was low enough for the alert level in Auckland to drop to level 2 and for the rest of New Zealand to drop to level 1 as from midnight last night, there is still a level of risk for the Cook Islands they are uncomfortable with. And there is still a lot of unknowns around the likely source.

"With all this knowledge to hand, Cabinet does not feel comfortable allowing passengers into the country this week. We will meet again over the weekend and a further update can be expected after that meeting."

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown.
Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown. Photo credit: Getty Images / Newshub.

5pm - Hong Kong has formally approved China's Sinovac vaccine for emergency use, the city's health secretary said on Thursday, paving the way for its introduction in the global financial hub.

In a statement, Sophia Chan said the vaccine met the "safety, efficacy and quality requirements specified in Hong Kong emergency situations".

The Sinovac vaccine is effective against the UK and South African variants, the vaccine's Brazilian partner said on Wednesday, citing test results in Chinese trials.

"We have tested this vaccine in China against the English and the South African variants, with good results," said Dimas Covas, head of the Butantan biomedical center in Sao Paulo which lead domestic trials of the Chinese vaccine and is supplying doses to Brazil's Health Ministry.

Covas did not give any more details on exactly how effective the vaccine proved against these strains.

Butantan is also testing the vaccine, known as CoronaVac, against the Brazilian variant of the virus which appeared in the city of Manaus, he said.

"Soon we will have the results and we are very positive it will do the job," Covas said.

- Reuters

4:30pm - The Napier Art Deco Festival 2021 may have been cancelled, but the city will still celebrate its art deco history with dozens of events still going ahead.

At least 20 events are confirmed as still going ahead this weekend, with iconic venues such as Mission Estate, The County Hotel, The Art Deco Masonic Hotel, and The Urban Winery at the National Tobacco Building all bringing the glitz and glamour of the art deco era to life.

See the full list of events here.

4pm - Contact tracing has identified 135 close contacts associated with the six Auckland community cases, the Ministry of Health says. Of these, 103 of the close contacts have returned a negative test and 28 are pending.

As at 11:30am, a total of 31 close contacts and 1490 casual plus contacts have been identified at Papatoetoe High School. This is a drop from Wednesday as further investigation from health authorities confirmed some people weren't a contact.

Of the 31 school close contacts, 30 have returned negative results, with one positive result (Case D). Of the casual plus contacts, who are other students and staff at the school, 1398 have returned negative results. There was one positive (Case E) and 91 results are to come.

"We do remind all students and staff at the school to please stay home and isolate until receiving a negative test. School is expected to return on Monday 22 February," the Ministry of Health says.

"Close contacts at the school will not return until 24 February and must return a second negative test before doing so."

Investigations will continue on Thursday into the three community cases announced on Wednesday, including further interviews with contact tracing staff, the ministry says.

"As a result, a potential increase in the number of locations of interest, close and casual plus contacts is not unexpected.

"The priority is for close contacts and close casual contacts to be tested so we can understand any risk in the community."

For the latest information on locations of interest, and to understand if you are a casual or close contact, click here.

3:40pm - Praise is being heaped on the principal of Papatoetoe High School for his "model leadership" after the school found itself at the heart the latest outbreak.

On Thursday, both Chris Hipkins and Dr Ashley Bloomfield took time to personally thank Vaughan Couillault for his response.

"[Couillault] has been a model of leadership in his response to COVID-19 - that is very much appreciated," Hipkins said.

Dr Bloomfield said that no one at Papatoetoe High School invited COVID-19 in, and the school's principal has been a pillar of support for his students.

Read the full story here.

3:20pm - As part of an ongoing source investigation into these latest cases, the Ministry of Health says it is leaving "no stone unturned". They say Case B's workplace, LSG Sky Chefs, is the most likely source of infection, but other scenarios are being considered.

ESR has been reviewing all of the UK B.1.1.7 variants that have shown up in New Zealand over the last two months, but there is no direct match with the genome in this case.

"However, for completeness, we have decided to review other cases that have a similar genome. The closest one we have on record relates to a case from December at the Four Points by Sheraton managed isolation facility in Auckland," the ministry says.

"While ESR have advised us this is an unlikely source, guests and their household contacts who were at the facility in late December have been contacted to get either a PCR or serology test if they have had any symptoms since leaving the facility."

The ministry says health officials don't consider this a likely source of infection at this stage, but are chasing all lines of enquiry so they can confidently rule out possibilities to narrow their focus.

3pm - Train services in Auckland will return to their scheduled timetables now the city is in alert level 2.

Train users can check live departures and train line statuses on the AT Mobile app for any updates.

2:40pm - COVID-19 cases that manage to get past the border aren't a sign border workers have "failed" at their job, Hipkins said during Parliament's Question Time on Thursday. He was responding to a question from National's Chris Bishop about a statement he made on Tuesday, where Hipkins said some epidemiologists "should know better" when talking about failures at the border.

Hipkins believes statements about a "failure at the border" is an attack on border workers, adding one of the challenges they've got is people increasingly "don't want to work there" which he says is an ongoing risk to New Zealand's public health.

"The people who work at the border who get out of bed every day and go to work to keep themselves, their families, and the New Zealand community safe see that as a direct criticism of their work, and people should be careful when they make those kinds of bold statements. They are unfair," Hipkins says.

"There will be cases of COVID-19 that make it past the border. That is not a sign that people who work at the border have failed."

2:20pm - The new Resurgence Support Payment passed in Parliament earlier this week will be available to eligible businesses now that Auckland will be in alert level 2 until Monday, Minister of Finance Grant Robertson says.

In order to qualify for the payment, businesses must show a 30 percent drop in revenue over a seven-day period compared with a typical similar revenue period in the six weeks prior to the alert level rise. Or if it is a seasonal business applying, they must show a 30 percent revenue drop compared with a similar week the previous year.

"The payment is available to businesses nationally if they can meet the eligibility criteria, not just those in Auckland. That decision recognises that many businesses rely on Auckland for revenue so it is only fair that the payment is available nationally," Robertson says.

The payment includes a core per business rate of $1500 plus $400 per employee, up to a total of 50 full time employees - a maximum payment of $21,500.

Businesses can apply for the payment from Tuesday via the Inland Revenue website.

Grant Robertson.
Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty Images

2:05pm - The global wine industry is set for a major shake up in the coming years, with COVID-19 predicted to have a "lasting impact" on the sector.

Conditions created by the ongoing pandemic have set the stage for bigger players to benefit at the expense of smaller wineries, according to Rabobank's latest Wine Quarterly report.

"After years of increasing fragmentation in the industry, we see a context forming that will create additional advantages for larger wineries and support industry consolidation," Stephen Rannekleiv, US-based Rabobank Global Strategist Beverages said on Thursday.

The wine industry has faced numerous challenges amid the pandemic. Last year's first COVID-19 lockdown came just in time for harvest, sending winemakers scrambling to figure out how to ensure grapes could be picked without sacrificing workers' health and safety.

Read the full story here.

1:45pm - People can have confidence in the Government's decision to move Auckland to level 2, Hipkins says, due to the extensive level of testing they've seen and finding close contacts.

"I do acknowledge this is newer in the sense that we've moved more quickly than we have done previously. That is by design, that is intentional," he says.

"Where we do need to use a short, sharp shock, we want to do that as quickly and efficiently as possible, and get back to something that's a bit more normal as quickly as we can."

1:35pm - Hipkins says there's a contingency for wastage of vaccines in New Zealand, particularly because they have a short shelf life after they come out of their freezers.

"A big part of our logistical planning is to minimise, as much as possible, the potential for loss of vaccines because they reach the end of the shelf life before we were able to use them," he says.

Dr Bloomfield adds the potential of wastage is built into their orders, and also built into their planning is a range of ways to minimise wastage. For example, moving vaccines around the country will be done on a daily basis and will be provided to locations where people are already booked in to receive a vaccine. This will help them know how many vaccines to send.

1:25pm - It's possible the source is never found, like what happened with the Auckland August cluster, Hipkins says. But during our lockdown this week, it was necessary to do widescale testing to ensure there wasn't community transmission.

The genomes of Case D and Case E are the UK variant, the same as the cases from Sunday. The Sheraton case from December was also B.1.1.7.

It is very unlikely the December case and this week's cases are connected, Dr Bloomfield says, but officials want to investigate further.

1:20pm - Hipkins is now discussing the vaccine rollout, which will begin this weekend. An end-to-end dry run has been completed, he says. Officials are confident protocols are robust. The dry run included scenarios such as where the vaccine is dropped. Vaccinators who will administer vaccines will start getting the jab from Friday.

Speaking about the decision to drop alert levels, Hipkins says once the possibility of widespread undetected community transmission was disregarded, Cabinet felt confident to rely on contact tracing and testing for the isolation of any new linked cases.

He says our systems have been adjusted and improved throughout our response. Contact tracing wasn't at the level it is now back during our initial lockdown. 

Hipkins doesn't believe the lockdown was an overreaction. He wouldn't want to announce a large outbreak because officials didn't act quickly enough. On Sunday, there were still many unknown factors.

Officials are investigating whether mingling in a LSG Sky Chefs cafeteria could be a site of transmission. Person-to-person transmission remains the most likely.

1:15pm - Dr Bloomfield says all nine direct colleagues of the LSG Sky Chef woman have tested negative. Of the 444 people in the wider working environment, 350 people are negative and the rest are pending.

Papatoetoe High School will be closed until Monday. Students and staff will need to show a negative test to return. Close contacts at the school will need to continue self-isolating for the 14 days period and need to show a second negative test. Dr Bloomfield acknowledges the principal for his "strong support" and "model leadership".

The most likely source continues to be via the LSG Sky Chefs company. However, one new line of inquiry is the Four Points by Sheraton Auckland managed isolation facility where there is a possible genomic similarity between a previous case that stayed there in December and the current cases. Guests and household contacts who stayed at that facility in late December have been contacted to get tested if they have had symptoms since leaving. This is an unlikely source, but officials want to leave no stone unturned.

1:10pm - Dr Ashley Bloomfield says there are three MIQ cases. It is reassuring there have been no new community cases, showing the effectiveness of our system, he says.

The cases announced on Wednesday have been transferred to the quarantine facility. 

All close contacts at the school have tested negative other than the one positive case from Wednesday (Case D). 

Of 1490 casual-plus contacts, 1398 have tested negative and the rest are outstanding. Seventy-five people are having their records matched up with their tests. 

As reported on Wednesday, Case E is a McDonald's worker. Some staff have been identified as close contacts, while others are casual-plus contacts. Anyone who visited while the person was working there on February 13 between 11:30am and 4:15pm are considered low-risk given the nature of the work the person undertakes. But they should stay at home and get a test.

There is no evidence of transmission through food handling globally, Dr Bloomfield says. 

1:05pm - Chris Hipkins says there are no new positive cases in the community after strong testing numbers. 

He is reminding Kiwis that face coverings are now mandatory on public transport and domestic flights across the country, not just in Auckland. This decision will be reviewed on Monday alongside the alert level decisions. 

People also need to keep scanning QR codes. There has been a spike over the last few days and Hipkins wants to see those numbers remain high.

12:35pm - In case you missed it earlier, Chris Hipkins and Dr Ashley Bloomfield will be holding a press conference at 1pm. We will be livestreaming that.

12:30pm - The source of Auckland's latest COVID-19 cluster still remains elusive as health officials continue to probe, and then cross off, possible scenarios that may have caused the transmission.

One of the strongest leads has now also hit a dead end, with no sequenced genomes in the international database matching those of the three Papatoetoe cases.

Read more here.

12pm - A laboratory study suggests that the South African variant of the coronavirus may reduce antibody protection from the Pfizer Inc/BioNTech SE vaccine by two-thirds, and it is not clear if the shot will be effective against the mutation, the companies said on Thursday.

The study found the vaccine was still able to neutralize the virus and there is not yet evidence from trials in people that the variant reduces vaccine protection, the companies said.

Still, they are making investments and talking to regulators about developing an updated version of their mRNA vaccine or a booster shot, if needed.

For the study, scientists from the companies and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) developed an engineered virus that contained the same mutations carried on the spike portion of the highly contagious coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa, known as B.1.351. The spike, used by the virus to enter human cells, is the primary target of many COVID-19 vaccines.

Researchers tested the engineered virus against blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine, and found a two- thirds reduction in the level of neutralizing antibodies compared with its effect on the most common version of the virus prevalent in U.S. trials.

Their findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Because there is no established benchmark yet to determine what level of antibodies are needed to protect against the virus, it is unclear whether that two-thirds reduction will render the vaccine ineffective against the variant spreading around the world.

However, UTMB professor and study co-author Pei-Yong Shi said he believes the Pfizer vaccine will likely be protective against the variant.

"We don't know what the minimum neutralizing number is. We don't have that cutoff line," he said, adding that he suspects the immune response observed is likely to be significantly above where it needs to be to provide protection.

That is because in clinical trials, both the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and a similar shot from Moderna Inc conferred some protection after a single dose with an antibody response lower than the reduced levels caused by the South African variant in the laboratory study.

Even if the concerning variant significantly reduces effectiveness, the vaccine should still help protect against severe disease and death, he noted. Health experts have said that is the most important factor in keeping stretched healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed.

More work is needed to understand whether the vaccine works against the South African variant, Shi said, including clinical trials and the development of correlates of protection - the benchmarks to determine what antibody levels are protective.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they were doing similar lab work to understand whether their vaccine is effective against another variant first found in Brazil.

Moderna published a correspondence in NEJM on Thursday with similar data previously disclosed elsewhere that showed a sixfold drop antibody levels versus the South African variant.

Moderna also said the actual efficacy of its vaccine against the South African variant is yet to be determined. The company has previously said it believes the vaccine will work against the variant. 

- Reuters

11:50am - The Government will be questioned over its COVID-19 response during Question Time on Thursday.

The questions include: 

  • Chris Bishop to the Minister for COVID-19 Response: Does he stand by all his policies and actions relating to COVID-19?
  • Greg O'Connor to the Minister of Finance: What financial support will be available to businesses affected by the COVID-19 alert level changes this week?

11:40am - The America's Cup challenger final series between Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and Team INEOS UK will resume on Saturday, organisers have confirmed.

America's Cup Events wanted to delay a return to the water until Auckland had moved back to alert level 1 to allow crowds to attend, while challengers of record Luna Rossa remained adamant that racing should continue immediately.

Read more here.

11:30am - It's time for Newshub Live at 11.30am with Mitch McCann. Tune in by watching Three, by clicking on the banner above or clicking here

11:25am - One of the concerns about moving down alert levels is that if new community cases are found not linked to the original trio, Auckland may have to yo-yo back into lockdown.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked about that at her press conference on Wednesday.

"Look, the reason we’ve taken the decision to move to alert level 2 is because it has still a level of precaution in it," she said.

"We do worry about mass gatherings, and so that’s restricted here. It still asks hospitality to keep precautions in place, and I believe the reason that Dr Bloomfield has recommended that we do this is because it still gives us a period where we can just reassure ourselves with a few extra precautions in place."

11:05am - Auckland Live has announced that due to alert level 2 settings, events scheduled until next Monday as part of its Summer in the Square programme will not be going ahead.

"Due to the nature of the events planned and difficulty limiting audience numbers in Aotea Square, the events have been cancelled to support the welfare and safety of our artists, staff and audiences."

More information can be found here.

10:55am - One of the factors giving officials extra confidence that there isn't wide undetected community transmission is the results of wastewater testing.

Most samples taken on Monday at multiple sites in Auckland, Rotorua and Christchurch came back negative for COVID-19. 

The Southern Western Interceptor in Auckland returned a positive result, but this is likely due to its proximity to the quarantine facility where there are infected individuals.

Samples from the Papatoetoe catchment and Hamilton were being processed on Wednesday and further results are expected later in the week.

10:35am - All staff at LSG Sky Chefs - where the mother from the original trio of cases works - have tested negative for COVID-19, according to reports.

10:30am - In adults with COVID-19 who were not sick enough to be hospitalised, high doses of zinc or vitamin C, or both, failed to improve their symptoms or speed their recovery, researchers reported on Friday in JAMA Network Open. 

They randomly assigned 214 patients to 10 days of treatment with either a high dose of zinc, vitamin C, both, or neither. Everyone also received standard supportive treatments from their healthcare providers. 

There was no significant difference between the groups in the number of days required to reach a 50 percent reduction in symptoms like fever, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. There was also no difference in the number of days until patients no longer had severe symptoms, in need for other prescribed medications, or in rates of hospitalisations and deaths. 

Zinc and vitamin C (ascorbic acid) supplements "cannot be recommended" to ease the course of COVID-19 in outpatients, the researchers concluded. 

"Most consumers of ascorbic acid and zinc are taking significantly lower doses of these supplements, so demonstrating that even high-dose ascorbic acid and zinc had no benefit suggests clear lack of efficacy," they said.

- Reuters

10:20am - Here are two key quotes from interviews on The AM Show on Thursday morning:

10:10am - Two top New Zealand scientists are among members of a new international panel mapping future COVID-19 scenarios.

Epidemiologist Professor Sir David Skegg of the University of Otago and Auckland University Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the president-elect of the International Science Council (ISC), is part of an oversight panel for the recently launched ISC COVID-19 Scenarios Project.

The panel, which was announced on Thursday in The Lancet, will report on the possible COVID-19 scenarios the world faces over the next three to five years, and on the choices for Governments, agencies, and citizens.

Read more here.

10am - Many Auckland Pride events will go ahead under alert level 2 restrictions. You can find out more information below:

9:50am - The organisers of two events have just announced they are pushing ahead with their plans.

Alert level changes this week have caused many events across the country to be cancelled or postponed. 

Organisers of The Auckland Art Fair, set to take place at The Cloud on February 24-28, hope it will go ahead.

“Given the proximity to the event, we are very aware of how much work the artists have put in for this Fair, and the commitment of participating galleries, especially after the cancellation of the 2020 event," says Stephanie Post and Hayley White, Auckland Art Fair co-directors.

"While we realise that there is still a risk that on Monday the Alert Level could remain at Level 2, meaning that the install for the galleries participating (and the Fair) could not happen, however, if Level 1 is announced on Monday and we hadn’t made the decision to go ahead, we would be devastated not to have taken the opportunity on behalf of the visual arts and events sectors."

If the alert levels don't drop, the event will be postponed until April.

Down in Rotorua, the second round of the 2021 New Zealand Motocross Championships will take place on Sunday.

"Please remember, though, that those attending from the Auckland area must observe Level Two requirements," said Motorcycling New Zealand motocross commissioner Ray Broad. 

 "We remind all to sign in and scan, and that includes mechanics and supporters. We all need to do our part and also support the host Rotorua Motorcycle Club."

9:40am - A commercially available electronic "nose" manufactured by Dutch company Breathomix can tell when a person does not have COVID-19 and would be a useful screening tool, researchers have found. 

They studied more than 4,500 individuals who came to coronavirus test facilities in The Netherlands between August and December 2020. 

First, using breath samples from a small subset of those individuals, they taught the "eNose" what a breath profile of a COVID-19 patient looks like, "comparable with how your nose can distinguish the smell of coffee from the smell of tea," said study leader Dr. Geert Groeneveld of Leiden University Medical Center. 

Later, the device was able to reliably rule out infection - with or without symptoms - in 70 percent to 75 percent of all individuals tested, with results available within seconds. 

In cases in which the eNose cannot reliably rule out the virus, patients can undergo traditional throat-swabbing tests. The study results, posted on Tuesday on medRxiv ahead of peer review, "demonstrate that in a scenario where eNose is used as a screening test, this can reduce the number of throat and nasopharyngeal swabs," Groeneveld said, "which in turn can reduce the burden on individuals, economy and healthcare."

- Reuters

9:30am - A reminder here from the police that travel in and out of Auckland is now allowed. Also, face coverings are mandatory on public transport and domestic flights across the country - not just in Auckland.

9:25am - The coronavirus variant first identified in the UK does not cause more severe disease in children than variants circulating earlier in 2020, new data suggest. 

Doctors at King's College Hospital in London compared 20 children hospitalised for COVID-19 during the pandemic's first wave and 60 hospitalised during the second wave, when most infections were caused by the new variant. 

While more children were hospitalised in the second wave, "this might be due to the higher prevalence of SARS-CoV-2" at the time, study leader Dr. Atul Gupta said. The number of adult patients also increased in the second wave, he noted.

Hospitalised children in both waves had similar ages, rates of underlying medical conditions, socioeconomic status and other risk factors, the researchers reported in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. 

In both periods, few needed oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation. Those were actually needed less often in the second wave, Gupta said. 

"We have found no evidence of more severe disease having occurred in children and young people during the second wave," he concluded, "suggesting that infection with the B.1.1.7 variant does not result in an appreciably different clinical course" in this age group. 

- Reuters

9:15am - Speaking to RNZ following the alert level decision on Wednesday, GP Maryann Heather was surprised at the decision to drop down levels. Her team thought an extension to Sunday was possible.

"For us in South Auckland, we're still quite mindful that we shouldn't relax too much and we still need to make sure that the messages go out there that if you have any symptoms or you have any contact with those people who are positive then you need to make sure you do the things you need to do and get tested," she said.

RNZ also spoke to Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson, who was worried about the outsanding Papatoetoe High School test results and the unknown source of the outbreak.

9am - Infectious disease experts are warning a "glitch" in the latest COVID-19 investigation means Aucklanders should remain vigilant as the city moves a step back towards normality.

The new cases not only had no matches in our MIQ database, they couldn't be matched to any cases overseas either, associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said.

"The one glitch is we still don't know the origin of this cluster - that's a little bit unnerving," said modeller Dr Shaun Hendy. "It's possible we won't know the origins of this cluster. If they had been able to figure that out, that would have given us a lot more certainty. That's really the one glitch this time around."

Read more here

8:45am - Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli is insisting on an immediate return to racing in the challengers' finals series, regardless of changes in the national COVID-19 alert level. 

On Wednesday, the Italian syndicate issued an ultimatum before the Government's announcement of their decision to shift down a level, that their Prada Cup final against INEOS Team UK must resume on Friday, whether Auckland was at level 2 or 3.

The AM Show's Mark Richardson has called Luna Rossa's behaviour "disgraceful".

Read more here.

8:40am - COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield will hold a press conference at 1pm to provide the latest update. You'll be able to watch that on Newshub.

8:25am - Australia has extended its travel bubble suspension until at least Sunday, despite New Zealand's move down alert levels on Thursday.

"The Safe Travel Zone allowing quarantine free flights from New Zealand to Australia has been suspended," the Australian SmartTraveller website says.

"All flights from New Zealand to Australia are now classified as Red Zone flights until at least 21 February 2021. If you're arriving into Australia from New Zealand you must complete 14 days quarantine in a supervised hotel."

It advises: "Do not travel to New Zealand due to the health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant disruptions to global travel".

The one-way travel bubble was initially suspended until Wednesday night after the announcement of three new community cases on Sunday.

8:20am - Several large events nationwide have been postponed or cancelled due to the change in alert levels this week.

Ségolène de Fontenay from the New Zealand Events Association says she is "relieved" to see most of the country moving to alert level 1, but due to the gathering limits at alert level 2, it will not be possible for many events to go ahead in Auckland in the coming days.

She says organisers may stop planning events in Auckland due to the risk of lockdowns in the future.

8:05am - There are still hundreds of casual-plus contacts test results from the high school pending. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked on Wednesday how she can be confident the outbreak is contained when these results haven't yet come through.

"Keep in mind we have completed the testing of those close contacts, and that’s where we've seen that extra positive result from that classmate today," she replied.

"The remainder are what we call casual contacts, and so those are people we don’t have, at this stage, any reason to believe are likely to produce a positive result.

"But even then, all of that group have been asked to stay at home, and so despite this alert level change, will not be leaving their homes."

7:55am - Johns Hopkins University reports that there have been 109,729,579 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 2.4 million deaths. The United States has recorded 27.78 million cases and 488,921 deaths.

7:35am - Britain became the first country in the world on Wednesday to give the go-ahead for human challenge trials in which volunteers will be deliberately exposed to COVID-19 to advance research into the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The trial, due to start within a month, will see up to 90 healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 30 exposed to the smallest amount of the virus needed to cause infection, scientists behind the plans told reporters at a news briefing.

Read more here.

7:25am - Dr Verrall says no genomic match between Sunday's cases and any other cases in the managed isolation system suggests the virus may have come from an overseas airline crew member or someone else who temporarily was in the country. No match has been found to any case in the international database either, she says.

Going into lockdown on Sunday was necessary due to the number of unknown factors at the time, such as the fact there was no clear link to the border. She says using the alert level system in a short, sharp manner is appropriate.

7:15am - Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall says there have been no new cases overnight and genomic sequencing has found a high chance of a  link between Sunday's cases and Wednesday's cases.

"There is just one mutation difference between the genome sequenicng of the original family and the second family," she says. That suggests there is just a single chain of transmission.

She says it is "reassuring" that community testing and wastewater testing has found no evidence of COVID-19 not linked to the original trio of cases. More than 20,000 tests have been conducted since Sunday.

7:10am - Speaking to Newstalk ZB, medical expert Des Gorman says it's unclear how much risk the Government is willing to live with. Initially, it allowed big events on Sunday to go ahead, then a lockdown was imposed, and now it has been lifted, he says.

Gorman says the response appears to be driven by optics rather than science. He questions why the Big Gay Out and America's Cup were allowed to go ahead just hours before the lockdown was imposed.

"I can't see what the scientific pattern is," he says. 

7am - With Auckland no longer in lockdown, motorists can freely travel in and out of the region. Late on Wednesday night, police removed their checkpoints from the northern and southern borders.

6:50am - The number of daily new confirmed cases continues to fall, now down to levels not seen since last September. 

There have been 110 million confirmed cases and 2.43 million deaths to date.

Here's the latest from around the world overnight.

6:40am - There has been a lot of talk recently about close contacts, casual-plus contacts and casual contacts. So what are they?

Close contacts are those people who have a higher risk of being infected due to their proximity to a case and the length of time they have spent with them during the case's infectious period. This could be a family member, a classmate, or a workmate.

A casual contact is an individual who may have been at the same location as someone infectious with COVID-19, but who likely didn't come up close and personal with them. 

Some of these people may be deemed casual-plus, meaning there is a slightly higher chance of exposure. Whether someone is a casual or casual-plus depends on the location they were at and the likelihood of interaction.

For example, someone in the same store as a case may be a casual-plus contact, but someone in the same mall as an infected person may be a casual contact.

6:30am - Hendy believes New Zealand will probably still see a couple more "downstream cases". This means cases that have likely been infected by the original trio of cases, similar to those found on Wednesday.

It would be alarming, Hendy says, if we find cases without links to the original three or who may have transmitted the virus to them. This could signal a wider cluster. However, the lack of COVID-19 found in wastewater sample testing is promising, he says.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the purpose of alert level 2 was to "minimise the risk of any transmission and be able to rapidly track and isolate any cases".

She said there is "every chance we will find further cases". 

"While our expectation is that these will be linked to our current cases, we still need Aucklanders to follow the level 2 rules - especially over the weekend - so that we can get the extra assurance we need to get back to level 1 as soon as possible next week."

6:20am - Modeller Shaun Hendy tells The AM Show the Government has "followed its own rule book this week". While there are still unknowns, such as the source of the outbreak, nothing has demonstrated there is an undetected cluster, Hendy says. However, not knowing the origin of the cluster is a little "unnerving". 

He says we have got increasingly confident in our contact tracing system and in dealing with smaller clusters. 

We can't stop being vigilant yet and need to keep up the basic health measures, Hendy says.

6:10am - Auckland Mayor Phil Goff welcomed the move to alert level 2 on Wednesday. But he said while the region was out of lockdown, "we are not fully out of the woods yet". 

"The vital thing now is for people to continue scanning their QR codes and get tested if they are feeling unwell," Goff said.

He recognised the three-day lockdown would have put businesses under pressure.

“This is the third time Auckland has been at level three in less than 12 months and the cumulative impact on businesses is real. 

"We need to ensure there is flexibility from the Government to help those businesses most affected by even relatively short periods at level 3, as well as those that are most impacted by level 2 restrictions.”

6am - It's time for The AM Show. The guests on the show on Thursday include modeller Shaun Hendy, associate Minister of Health Dr Ayesha Verrall, and Greg Harford from Retail NZ. Watch the show here.

5:50am - In the wake of Wednesday's news that two more students at Papatoetoe High School have tested positive for COVID-19 - one a classmate of a case from Sunday and the second being that classmate's sibling - it was announced that the school will remain closed until Monday.

The Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) is asking the school community, including students, staff and household members, to be tested. The health service is recommending that no staff member or student return to the school until they receive a negative test. Close contacts at the school must remain in self-isolation for 14 days.

To help with the testing effort, a testing station will continue to operate at the school on Saturday and Sunday in addition to other testing centres in Auckland. 

ARPHS asks that siblings of students at Papatoetoe High School and the children of staff don't attend other schools until Monday. Everyone in the school community is also asked to avoid large gatherings until next week.

More details about testing locations can be found here.

5:40am - Late on Wednesday night, BNZ announced that the way some of its branches operate will change in light of the alert level move.

Twenty-two branches in Auckland will be open at alert level 2, however, these sites will remain closed in order to "support physical distancing and to protect staff wellbeing":

  • Dominion Road
  • Henderson
  • Kumeu
  • Meadowlands
  • Waiuku
  • Remuera
  • Commercial Bay
  • Airport
  • Birkenhead
  • Brown's Bay
  • Orewa
  • Takapuna

All Auckland branches will be offering reduced services and customers are encouraged to use phone and internet banking where possible.

Outside of Auckland, it is business as usual. 

5:30am - Contact tracing is now underway in relation to the three new community cases of COVID-19. That means officials are investigating where these cases may have been while infectious and who they may have come into contact with. 

Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the two students who tested positive on Wednesday did visit a "handful" of locations over the weekend, but didn't go to school while infectious and were asymptomatic when tested on Monday. The third case has been in isolation during their infectious period. 

In regards to the three original cases, as of Wednesday afternoon, 30 of their 31 close contacts at Papatoetoe High School had come back negative, with the remaining individual testing positive. This person is one of the new cases announced on Wednesday.

There were 1523 casual-plus contacts at the school, of which 1159 have returned negative results, one is positive, and 363 results are outstanding.

5:20am - Following the announcement of three new community cases on Wednesday, the Ministry of Health's locations of interest page was updated with several new sites.

These include Subway Otara on February 15, several stores in Manukau, and the McDonald's on Cavendish Dr, Papatoetoe where one of the new cases worked.

The full list of locations, timings and instructions for people who were there can be found here.

5:10am - Need a reminder about what the new alert levels mean for you?

At alert level 2, Aucklanders can move around the region normally and can return to work and school. However, health measures such as physical distancing and scanning QR codes are highly encouraged. The biggest restriction in place is a limit of 100 people at social gatherings.

At alert level 1, there are few domestic restrictions. Face coverings must be worn on public transport and on domestic flights while good hygiene should be practiced. 

For more information, click here.

5am - Kia ora, good morning, welcome to Newshub's live updates for Thursday. After three days of lockdown, Auckland has moved to alert level 2. That means residents are free to travel as usual, however, there are limits on gatherings. The rest of the country is now at alert level 1.

Wednesday saw three new community cases all with a link to one of the original trio of cases announced on Sunday. There are still hundreds of casual-plus contact test results outstanding and the results of many of those should come through later on Thursday.