COVID-19: Auckland not in the 'all-clear' yet, call for alert level 1.5 - Prof Michael Baker

A leading epidemiologist is calling on the Government to revise its COVID-19 response by incorporating additional alert levels - an amendment that would accommodate for situations where the community is not yet in the all-clear.

Professor Michael Baker says Auckland is not in "the all-clear yet" following its latest bout of community transmission, and Cabinet's decision on Monday whether to shift the Super City back to alert level 1 should reflect that.

The Professor of Public Health is urging the Government to revise its alert level system, a framework which currently consists of four levels. The most significant response, alert level 4, requires total lockdown, while alert level 1 is close to pre-pandemic life, but with the addition of basic public health measures.

Four new cases have since been identified. The first, Case D, is a close contact of the daughter via Papatoetoe High School. The additional three cases - Case E, F and G - are household contacts of Case D. However, testing is still ongoing - and the source of the initial three cases remains a mystery.

Speaking to The AM Show ahead of Cabinet's review on Monday, Professor Baker said an alert level 1.5 would be suitable for Auckland.

"I'm a big fan of having more levels, like an alert level 1.5. We can't sound the all-clear yet," he said. 

"People have got to be very vigilant and the number one thing, of course, is if you have cold or flu symptoms, go and get tested - that is really important at the moment."

Professor Baker also suggested that masks should play a more important role in the Government's system. Face coverings are currently mandatory on flights and public transport, but are not compulsory in other high-risk settings, such as supermarkets or indoor spaces where transmission is more likely.

"Masks have never been built into our alert level system really well - they're a bit of an afterthought. That's one area where the system needs a bit of an upgrade," he explained. 

"The core idea is very good, but we now know more about the virus - that transmission happens indoors and in poorly ventilated places. I think we need to revise our system to reflect that and encourage mask use in the right places.

"We need this revision of the alert level system to think about higher-risk, indoor places… at the moment, the rules around mask use are a bit ambiguous and they need to be clarified."

Professor Michael Baker suggests an alert level 1.5 would provide additional protection as Auckland is not yet "in the all-clear".
Professor Michael Baker suggests an alert level 1.5 would provide additional protection as Auckland is not yet "in the all-clear". Photo credit: Newshub

It's not the first time Professor Baker has recommended adding additional layers to the alert level system. Following a significant outbreak in Auckland last year, the epidemiologist also suggested placing the region under an alert level 1.5, which would maintain restrictions on large indoor gatherings in the aftermath of the flare-up.

"But essentially, it is largely back to life as usual," he told RNZ's Morning Report in September. 

"We still need to be cautious. We learned that coming out of the last outbreak. Auckland will need special thought."

Cabinet will announce whether Auckland will move to alert level 1 on Monday afternoon.