Despite another day of no new community cases, New Zealand remains in a "critical period" in its response to COVID-19 with many test results still pending.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Wednesday wouldn't rule out an early shift of alert levels, but said officials want to see the test results of all relevant close and casual contacts before making any decisions. He called these "important potential contacts".
The Ministry of Health's latest update says a number of contacts were still being followed up on, including individuals from the Manukau Institute of Technology and the Hunters Plaza City Fitness gym.
What you need to know:
- Fifteen cases of COVID-19 have been recorded as part of the Auckland February cluster. No new cases were reported on Thursday
- Auckland is at COVID-19 alert level 3 and the rest of New Zealand is at alert level 2. This was implemented at 6am Sunday and is scheduled to last seven days.
- Find out more about what alert levels 3 and 2 mean for you here.
- The locations of interest can be found here.
- More than 9400 Kiwis have now received their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with a third shipment of the vaccine having arrived in the country earlier this week.
These live updates have finished.
9:15pm - The impact COVID-19 has had on the international drug trade has led police to believe the shortage of MDMA could be why synthetic drugs, including bath salts, are appearing in New Zealand in such large quantities.
It is a trend that has been common throughout the recent festival season, with people throughout New Zealand experiencing the unusual effects of the dangerous substance.
"The issue has been the supply chain. Mail and air cargo are our two predominant sources of drugs, and there's been a number of issues with availability to get freight down to New Zealand," Customs northern ports manager Mark O'Toole says.
Despite Customs intercepting a record-breaking 750kg of MDMA in 2019, that number dropped by 55 percent last year, meaning less was likely to have made it into the community.
8:55pm - Britain's medical regulator on Thursday said it would fast-track vaccines for coronavirus variants, adding that the makers of already-authorised shots would not need new lengthy clinical trials to prove their adapted vaccines will work.
There is concern that some variants, such as those first found in South Africa and Brazil, may reduce the efficacy of the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines, and manufacturers are looking to adapt their shots.
The accelerated process is based on that used for seasonal flu vaccines each year, the Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said, and would be based on robust evidence that the shots create an immune response, rather than full clinical trials.
"Our priority is to get effective vaccines to the public in as short a time as possible, without compromising on safety," said Christian Schneider, chief scientific officer at the MHRA.
"Should any modifications to authorised COVID-19 vaccines be necessary, this regulatory approach should help to do just that."
The MHRA said that researchers would be able to measure protection by looking at antibodies in the blood after vaccination.
As well as data on immune response, vaccine makers will need evidence the vaccine is safe, and data from original clinical trials and real-world evidence from vaccine rollout could also be used.
The MHRA said it had developed the advice in conjunction with regulators in Australia, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland.
AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, the makers of the three vaccines the MHRA has approved for use so far, have all said they are aiming to modify their shots to cope with variants this year.
Britain, which is rolling out shots made by AstraZeneca and Pfizer, has given a first shot of a vaccine to over 20 million people. Despite regulatory approval, Moderna's vaccine is yet to be rolled out in the country.
8:15pm - If COVID-19 has got you thinking of a career change, an event organiser is definitely in the high-risk category.
Northland Field Days in Dargaville was meant to start on Thursday, but has been cancelled because of the current alert levels. Ten months of planning and logistics for nothing.
"It's very hard, it's gut-wrenching actually you know for the field days as well as the town and all the site holders and everybody involved very gut-wrenching," Northland Field Days president John Phillips told Newshub.
"When we started this months ago, we had to hope that nothing would happen and we were unfortunate that it happened right the week before."
7:35pm - Associate Minister of Health Peeni Henare and Dr Ashley Bloomfield took part in a Facebook Live on Thursday evening.
Among the questions, Dr Bloomfield was asked about how he can be sure the vaccines are safe.
He says Medsafe has a "top quality" group of people who are doing research and are looking at the evidence on these vaccines.
"So far, they've given approval to just one, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the one we're rolling out now," Dr Bloomfield says.
"But what I would say is we got questions saying, 'Australia's approved it, Europe's approved it, of course we're going to approve it'. Actually, no. We don't outsource our approval to other countries. We want to know these vaccines are safe in Aotearoa New Zealand for our situation, so I'm really confident in the process they've done, but also the follow up they're doing."
6:30pm - ACT leader David Seymour is calling on the Government to "reset" and create a "Taiwan-style" epidemic response unit
"With the Ministry of Health and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet waging war through the media, it is time for a reset. The Government should follow ACT and the Simpson-Roche report’s advice and install a purpose built, Taiwan style, Epidemic Response Unit," he says.
"The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet-run Unite Against COVID-19 Facebook page contradicted the Prime Minister, saying Case L was not required to isolate. The DPMC is claiming it got advice from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Health is denying it gave the advice."
Seymour says the Simpson Roche Report said the All-of-Government group should be formed into a new directorate that would work across government agencies to ensure there's cohesion.
"ACT's policy, released in August said: ACT would establish a specialist multi-displinary epidemic response unit similar to Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Centre," Seymour says.
"Such an integrated approach would improve the consistency of rulemaking, and the uptake of technology. With a better organised response, hardworking New Zealanders mightn’t be giving up so much right now for Labour’s bungling and warring bureaucracy."
6pm - It's time for Newshub Live at 6pm. You can watch online here or tune in on Three.
5:30pm - The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) says posts on a Government website saying a KFC worker did nothing wrong were made in "on the understanding it was accurate" as the information came from the Health Ministry.
Multiple posts were made on the Unite Against COVID-19 website, which is run by the DPMC, on February 26. The posts were responding to questions from the public and stated that the KFC worker, known as Case L, didn't need to isolate and her and her family "complied with advice they were given at the time".
However, a spokesperson for the DPMC COVID-19 Response Group told Newshub the information came from the Ministry of Health.
"It was based on information from the Ministry of Health website regarding the general advice at the time for all the (Papatoetoe) families concerned."
5pm - National Party MP Chris Penk is questioning why the wage subsidy is calculated on average revenue earned between January 4 and February 14.
The extended wage subsidy reopened for applications on Thursday. It is available nationally when there's a regional or national move to alert levels 3 or 4, for a period of seven days.
"That's an unusually quiet period for many businesses as owners and staff take well deserved summer breaks," Penk says.
"Surely a better measure would be (for example) 12 months ago so it's effectively a seasonally adjusted figure? Conveniently, that was prior to the first lockdown last year so the numbers wouldn't be skewed by that either."
The rate for the subsidy is $585.80 for full-time workers and $350 for part-time workers. Support will be provided in two-weekly payments and total support will match the duration at alert level 3, rounded to the nearest fortnight.
To qualify, businesses must show a 40 percent decline in revenue compared to typical fortnightly revenue, in the six weeks prior to the alert level increase that happened on February 14, the first time Auckland went into lockdown this year on Valentine's Day.
4:40pm - Auckland's Round the Bays fun run has gone virtual following the alert level changes and is now called Round the Backyard.
"We didn't want to disappoint the tens of thousands of people signed up to take part, so we are launching a virtual event that people can do anywhere in New Zealand - indeed from anywhere in the world," says Henry McLernon, Round the Bays event director.
"Our ethos is to put the fun in fun run, so doing one of Auckland's most iconic events on your own, yet simultaneously with thousands of people anywhere in the world, will be something to tick off your bucket list."
All participants registered for Round the Bays will automatically be signed up for the virtual event. Additionally, Round the Backyard is also open to anyone who wasn't already registered.
Participants can take part in an 8.4km walk, jog, or run wherever they are, from anywhere in the world, within a three-day window. All participants need is a smartphone and to complete the course in one session between 6am on March 12 and 9pm March 14 (NZ time).
Round the Backyard will have live leader boards, an interactive course map, social sharing, and participant places and paces, in real-time.
Those who were registered for Round the Bays who do not want to take part in the virtual version can opt out for a 50 percent refund.
New registrations will be $25 (12-18 years) and $40 (19+). For more details click here.
4:20pm - Countries with high levels of overweight people have the highest death rates from COVID-19, a report from the World Obesity Federation says.
The report says about 2.2 million of the 2.5 million deaths from the virus were in countries with high levels of overweight people. Countries such as the UK, US, and Italy, where more than 50 percent of adults are overweight, have the largest proportions of deaths linked to coronavirus.
The World Obesity Foundation believes people who are overweight should be given greater priority for vaccinations and tests due to their increased risk of death.
4pm - US President Joe Biden on Wednesday said decisions to end the required wearing of masks - such as those by governors of Texas and Mississippi - amounted to "Neanderthal thinking" given the rising death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked if he had a message to Texas and Mississippi, Biden told reporters: "I think it's a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody's realised by now, these masks make a difference."
Biden said the increasing availability of vaccinations was making a difference in containing the pandemic, but it was critical to remain vigilant about wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.
"The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, 'In the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it.' It still matters," Biden said before a brainstorming meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers to address cancer.
Asked about Biden's remarks, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves told Fox News Channel: "We no longer have a healthcare crisis in our state ... I wish the president would focus on trusting Americans rather than trying to insult Americans."
Biden said more than 511,000 people had died of the disease in the United States, and it would take time until everyone eligible was vaccinated.
Cases of COVID-19 in the United States remain upwards of 50,000 daily even after the US government has distributed more than 100 million vaccine doses and put shots into over 50 million arms, according to federal data.
"It is critical, critical, critical, critical, that they follow the science: Wash your hands, Hot water, Do it frequently. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced. I know you know that. I wish the heck some of our elected officials would."
Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued the most sweeping rollback of coronavirus restrictions of any US state on Tuesday, lifting a mask mandate and saying most businesses may open at full capacity next week.
Reeves also lifted state-imposed mask mandates across Mississippi on Tuesday and removed COVID-19 related restrictions on business operations.
3:40pm - The Ministry of Health has provided some extra information on the six new cases in MIQ.
The first arrived from India via the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on February 27. They tested positive on day three routine testing.
The second, third, fourth, and fifth people are part of the same travel bubble. They travelled from India via the UAE, arriving in New Zealand on March 2. They all tested positive on day zero routine testing.
The sixth person flew directly from UAE to New Zealand, arriving on March 2. They also tested positive on day zero routine testing.
No previously reported cases have recovered, meaning the total number of active cases in New Zealand is 68.
3:20pm - Auckland February cases contact tracing update from the Ministry of Health
Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) Manukau
All close contacts for the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) Manukau campus have returned a negative test and are receiving ongoing follow ups from public health staff while they complete their 14 day isolation period.
The vast majority of people on the campus at the same times as Case M are considered casual contacts and need to watch for symptoms. They do not need to have a test unless they have symptoms, or are a close or casual plus contact.
All 44 casual plus contacts from MIT on February 22 and 25 have been successfully contacted. Of these, 42 have returned negative day five tests. Two people without a test result are being followed up further.
City Fitness in Hunters Plaza
The 185 attendees of City Fitness in Hunters Plaza on February 26 are casual plus contacts, of which 156 have returned a negative test. There are 29 people who are due for test and the Ministry of Health says it is following up these test results.
KFC Botany Downs contacts
KFC staff - there are 12 close plus contacts who worked at the same time as Case L. All 12 of these people have returned negative test results.
All other test results received so far have come back negative.
Progress with tests at Papatoetoe High School
Of 11 Papatoetoe High School students still to be retested, eight of those were visited on Wednesday. They are from six separate households and mobile testing vans are taking tests from them today.
Two of the remaining students have refused a test and are being managed by Auckland public health officials. Contact tracers are working actively to contact the one outstanding student, who returned an initial negative test between February 15 and 19.
Kmart Botany contacts
A total of 33 staff members have been identified as close plus contacts. All 33 people have tested negative.
The Ministry of Health says it has been contacted by 1882 people who reported being at the store at the times of interest. They have been provided with public health advice. There are currently 1839 negative test results for this group.
There are 43 people that self-identified through the Kmart exposure event remaining that have not yet been tested. 42 of these have been contacted, are complying with isolation requirements and are being actively supported to have a test.
3:05pm - One of the four families in the Auckland February cluster has a lodger that wasn't moved to quarantine.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health says that it and the Auckland Regional Public Health Service knew about the boarder and they were classified as a close contact of a case in one of the households. However, they wouldn't say which household the lodger belongs to.
"They have been contacted, tested and isolated at home with daily management," a spokesperson says.
"The person has been self-isolating since the time he might have developed the disease, has returned a negative result and will be tested a second time in the coming days."
Although the person is isolating at home alone, the rest of the household has gone to the Jet Park quarantine facility.
"ARPHS discusses the requirements of self-isolation with all close contacts, but it is not compulsory that they are moved to Jet Park. Public health officials are comfortable with the situation and the way the risks are being managed."
2:50pm - Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says he has no explanation as to why Papatoetoe High School students refused to take a COVID-19 test.
All students and staff were required to isolate and undergo testing after the original case - a Papatoetoe High School student - was confirmed positive for the virus on February 14.
On Thursday, Dr Bloomfield said two people had refused to take a test and two others were unwilling to take a second test.
The Director-General says he has no understanding as to why tests are being refused.
2:30pm - Hannah Tamaki says she will not get the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available for the wider population of New Zealand.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, she said she would not apologise for leaving Auckland on Saturday evening with her husband, Brian Tamaki, hours after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the city would move to alert level 3 on Sunday.
"We are not the ones to say sorry," she wrote.
"Everything in your life is a choice.. make sure you choose for yourself, not be talked into something you are not happy to do .. I'm not taking the vaccine.. that's my choice.."
2:15pm - Jacinda Ardern says she spent Thursday morning at the Ministry of Health with the team of people who are working on the vaccine roll out.
"Being vaccinated means you're doing your bit to keep yourself, your family and your community safe. The least we can do is make it easy," she says in a Facebook post.
"At the moment we're vaccinating our border workers and their families, then we're moving through our health work force. By about the middle of the year we expect we'll be able to start offering a vaccine to everyone."
1:50pm - Anti-vaccination activists are falsely claiming the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is killing more people than its saving.
The claims, based on misinterpreted data from the hugely successful Israeli rollout of the vaccine, are being amplified by a range of right-wing and religious websites based in North America and prominent conspiracy theorists and spreaders of misinformation like Pete Evans and David Icke.
The current claim sweeping the internet is that data from the Israeli Ministry of Health shows the vaccine has killed "40 times more [elderly] people than the disease itself would have killed", and 260 times the number of young people.
But one exper says this claim "doesn't mesh well" with the actual situation in Israel.
1:30pm - When asked about Brian Tamaki being in the South Island now, Dr Bloomfield said he "does get around". Tamaki left Auckland after the lockdown was announced, but before it officially came into effect.
Bloomfield says people should be limiting their movements and not attend large gatherings.
"There should not be large gatherings anywhere in the country."
1:20pm - There haven't been enough community cases for the virus to be picked up in wastewater testing, Dr Bloomfield says. You would need more than 10 in the same area to be consistently picking up the virus, he says.
Wastewater testing can't be used exclusively as it won't pick up just a few cases, he says. It's important to use it within the context of the PCR community testing results.
Dr Bloomfield does not know why two people from Papatoetoe High School are refusing to be tested. However, these students are under an isolation plan.
1:10pm - Dr Bloomfield says even if cases emerge on Friday that can be clearly linked to current cases, Auckland could still move out of lockdown.
He believes there is a "sharp perimeter" around this outbreak, but checking the test results of the gym contacts and wider community testing will ensure there is no undetected onward transmission.
On whether south Auckland should be prioritised for vaccines, Dr Bloomfield says this is something being thought about.
The majority of the border workforce is based in south Auckland, he says, and the last two outbreak were also in this community. By vaccinating south Auckland, we wouldn't just be protecting that community, but the wider country, Dr Bloomfield suggests.
He's not frustrated we don't yet have all the gym contacts test results.
1:05pm - Dr Bloomfield says 11 Papatoetoe High School students have not returned a second test. Eight were visited on Thursday. Two students have refused a test and have isolation plans in place. One student is being tracked down, but the student is known of and have previously returned a negative test.
Wastewater testing samples have come back negative for the virus.
Dr Bloomfield says lockdown continues to be justified despite no new cases. That's because of the high number of exposure events. Test results relating to those contacts are still outstanding.
He doesn't believe Thursday is the day for Cabinet to decide whether alert levels should change. Cabinet will meet on Friday to decide whether the restrictions continue past Sunday.
As well as looking at the results of close and casual-plus contacts, officials will be assessing the scale of community testing to be assured there is no undetected transmission.
1pm - Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says there are no new community cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand. There are six newcases in MIQ facilities, all identified at day 0/1 testing.
Two cases from MIQ are in hospital, one of which is one of the new cases announced on Thursday. It's not confirmed these are COVID-19-related.
There were 14,671 tests processed on Wednesday, of which 7853 were from Auckland. That takes the seven-day rolling average to 9721. Dr Bloomfield says there continues to be 11 community testing stations operating.
Contact tracers continue to follow-up with close-plus contacts from MIT and the City Fitness Gym, Dr Bloomfield says.
Since Monday, 45 home visits have been undertaken and in all cases, the people were self-isolating as required, he says.
Of the 185 City Fitness casual-plus contacts, 156 have tested negative and 29 are due for testing.
12:45pm - In case you missed it, Dr Ashley Bloomfield will provide a COVID-19 update at 1pm at the Ministry of Health. You will be able to watch that on Three or on Newshub.co.nz.
12:25pm - The Surf Life Saving Championships set to take place on March 11-14 at the Bay of Plenty's Ōhope Beach have been cancelled due to alert level uncertainty.
"The decision on whether or not to cancel this event was incredibly difficult, but in the end we had to put the safety of our Surf Lifesaving community members – and the wider community – first," says chief executive Paul Dalton.
Dalton says advice provided by the Government’s COVID-19 Response Team indicated that an early announcement of any changes in alert levels after March 6 would not occur.
This meant a decision had to be made before the Government's announcement later in the week to provide some certainty to members.
"Our best guess is that Auckland will still be at Alert Level 2 for all of next week."
12:15pm - Scientists have uncovered new evidence that suggests that people with blood type A may be more likely to contract COVID-19.
The new study was published in the journal Blood Advances on Wednesday.
"Despite the devastating consequences of SARS-CoV-2, not all individuals seem to be equally susceptible to contracting the virus," the study said.
11:40am - National is calling on the Government to provide more detail about its vaccination rollout plan. It says more information is needed so that Kiwis and businesses have clarity for the plan post-COVID.
"Unlike other countries, New Zealand still has not published a detailed list of how the population will be prioritised for vaccines and when each group will be getting them," leader Judith Collins says.
"This is in stark contrast with Australia, which has a website where people can type in their location, age and occupation to find out when they will be getting vaccinated.
"Australia has declared that everyone who wants a vaccine will have been offered one by October. There is no such target date in New Zealand.
"Our Government won’t even tell us when non-border frontline health workers will be vaccinated, even though there is enough Pfizer vaccine in the country for them already."
She says it is "clear" New Zealand is not at the front of the global queue to receive vaccines.
On Wednesday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said nearly 10,000 border workers had been vaccinated, with a third batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses arriving in the New Zealamnd earlier this week
11:30am - Newshub Live at 11.30 is now on-air with the latest from around New Zealand and the world, including the newest details on the Auckland COVID-19 outbreak. You can watch on Three or at this link.
11:25am - The trucking industry is pushing for its workers to be given priority to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Nick Leggett, chief executive of the Road Transport Forum, says truck drivers should be among the first in line to get the jab given their importance in keeping the supply chain running.
11:15am - Hannah Tamaki, the wannabe MP and leader of Destiny Church who fled Auckland hours before the COVID-19 lockdown came into effect, has said she will not be getting a vaccine against the illness.
"Everything in your life is a choice.. make sure you choose for yourself not be talked into something you are not happy to do .. I’m not taking the vaccine.. that’s my choice.." Tamaki wrote on Facebook on Thursday morning.
11:05am - The Auckland Arts Festival has announced changes to its planned programming due to the alert level 3 lockdown in the region.
"Today, we are reflecting on what should have been our Festival opening. We are deeply saddened that some of our artists have been affected by cancellations and possible reschedules due to this week’s lockdown.
"Making these decisions has been far from easy and we are continuing to operate at hyper speed to reschedule as many shows and events as possible. Join us in crossing fingers and toes for good news of a drop in alert levels this weekend!"
10:55am - The Government's Consumer Travel Reimbursement Scheme has helped return over $352 million of refunds and credits to New Zealanders who had overseas travel cancelled due to COVID-19.
Consumer Affairs Minister David Clark says the department has been working with the travel sector to retrieve money owed to New Zealanders by overseas travel suppliers.
10:50am - The Czech Republic has asked China for deliveries of coronavirus vaccines made by China's Sinopharm, the Czech president's spokesman said on Wednesday.
The central European country of 10.7 million has been one of the world's worst-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with hospitals reporting full capacity and the death toll reaching 20,941 as of Tuesday.
President Milos Zeman, who has long lobbied for closer relations with China and Russia, asked his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for the supplies, acting upon request from Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Zeman's spokesman said.
"According to a report from the Czech embassy in Beijing, the Chinese side has decided to immediately meet this request," the spokesman said in a statement on the president's website.
A spokesman for Babis said he was not aware of the request when asked by Reuters. Babis did not mention it at a government news conference that closed just as the announcement was made.
Like other EU states hampered by delays in deliveries from the three producers whose shots have been registered in the UE, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, the Czech government has sought to boost supplies.
It won an agreement for advance supply of 100,000 of extra doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from EU partners earlier on Wednesday, on top of 100,000 from France offered last week, and smaller amounts from Germany and Israel.
Babis has reversed himself several times on possibly using Russia's Sputnik vaccine without approval by the European drug regulator EMA.
The country's Health Ministry, authorized to grant an exception for usage of unregistered vaccines, has insisted it would not endorse any without EMA registration. A spokeswoman said on Wednesday that policy remained unchanged.
In the EU, Hungary started administering the Sinopharm shot last week, and Polish President Andrzej Duda has discussed buying the shot with Xi, the PAP news agency reported on Monday.
10:40am - The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are already far-reaching, but experts say there may be an unexpected casualty - gender equality.
The women's right's movement could be pushed back as far as a decade, according to the director of a youth charity, following a survey revealing how much young women are shouldering domestic tasks throughout various lockdowns over the past year.
10:25am - Pressure is mounting on the Prime Minister to apologise for accusing a young COVID-19 case of failing to listen to self-isolation rules. New documentation emerged on Wednesday saying that the woman was not required to previously isolate as Jacinda Ardern had suggested.
ACT released a statement on Thursday morning saying that previous Prime Ministers have apologised after realising their comments were ill-judged.
"Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should climb down from her now indefensible position that members of a South Auckland family 'should have known' they needed to be tested for COVID-19 and not go to work and make a sincere apology," leader David Seymour said.
“She’s made these people’s life hell."
The statement lists several examples of PMs apologising, such as John Key saying sorry in 2015 for suggesting Labour MPs were backing rapists by making representations on behalf of Christmas Island detaineees.
"You really should do what’s right and begin repairing the damage you’ve done to this family and the wider Papatoetoe High School community," Seymour said.
"Not apologising will be a black mark on your tenure as Prime Minister, a reputational stain you’ll struggle to expunge with time."
10:15am - Police have now prosecuted nearly 1000 COVID-related breaches, but are not being called upon to take action against those defying isolation or testing orders.
Commissioner Andrew Coster says if people refuse to self-isolate or get tested, the police can only act if called in by health officials. However he says they do pursue alert level violations like illegal mass gatherings and regional border breaches.
10am - Consumer Affairs Minister Dr David Clark says the Government's Consumer Travel Reimbursement Scheme had helped return more than $352 million in refunds and credit to Kiwis who had overseas travel cancelled due to COVID-19.
"Working with the travel sector, we are helping New Zealanders retrieve the money owed to them by overseas travel suppliers," Dr Clark says.
"The scheme has seen millions of dollars locked up offshore returned to veryday New Zealanders, who were at risk of never seeing a cent.
"This means more money is coming back into the local economies as Kiwis now look to holiday domestically supporting the local tourism industry."
The scheme was announced in October in response to more than $690 million of Kiwis' money being locked up with overseas travel and tourism suppliers.
It pays New Zealand-based travel agents 7.5 percent of the value of all cash refunds they are able to successfully recover for their customers and 5 percent of the value of all credits successfully secured or rebooked for international travel.
"By incentivising travel agencies to recover funds on behalf of their customers, the scheme continues to benefit both consumers and industry," Dr Clark says.
"I want to thank the travel industry for their work supporting customers during such uncertain times and encourage applications to be made right up until the scheme ends."
9:55am - A prominent Auckland business leader has suggested ending coronavirus restrictions after just "two or three days" without new community cases.
Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett also wants future lockdowns to be applied to just suburbs, not entire cities - a prospect that's horrified a disease modelling expert, who says it would only make lockdowns last longer.
9:45am - Cabinet ministers have been sitting on advice regarding a nationwide vaccination schedule for weeks, but have yet to finalise or publish a complete plan.
That's despite Australia unveiling an extensive framework almost two months ago, identifying various groups of the population and their order of priority.
9:35am - Thursday's COVID-19 update will be presented by Dr Ashley Bloomfield at the Ministry of Health at 1pm. Newshub will stream that press conference.
9:30am - For a little bit of light relief, The AM Show's Aziz Al Sa'afin has uncovered a video of Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield dancing and singing.
It comes after Dr Bloomfield said he wasn't considering starting up a TikTok account to help with COVID-19 messaging.
9:25am - Crowne Plaza Auckland, one of the city's managed isolation facilities, has agreed to pay workers the living wage. Unite Union says this is a welcome move considering staff perform "crucial and risky work".
"This is a big win for Crowne Plaza workers but as we suspected, there are many more earning less and it's not just hotel workers who have fallen through the cracks," says the union's national secretary, John Crocker.
"We've heard from our friends at the New Zealand Nurses Organisation that many health care workers in these facilities also earn below the living wage."
"This may surprise the public, but it shows how important the issue is and emphasises the need for a government solution."
The union says it has been advised that the increase would be effective as of February 24 and last for the duration of the hotel's contract with MBIE.
9:15am - Test results returned on Thursday will play a crucial factor in whether Auckland is able to shift out of lockdown sooner than Sunday, Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare says.
"All eyes are on today," Henare told The AM Show.
"The information that comes in over the next 24 hours will be a factor in whether Cabinet makes the decision on the alert level tomorrow."
The Associate Minister admitted he is apprehensive about the impending results.
"I'm a little nervous, but as long as our people get tested and those results are good, we're headed in the right direction."
Read more here or watch Henare's interview in the video above.
9:05am - Scientists in Brazil recently reported that two people were simultaneously infected with two different variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This co-infection seemed to have no effect on the severity of patients' illness, and both recovered without needing to be hospitalised.
Although this is one of the few such cases recorded with SARS-CoV-2 – and the study is yet to be published in a scientific journal – scientists have observed infections with multiple strains with other respiratory viruses, such as influenza.
8:55am - Our World In Data shows that Israel continues to lead the way in terms of the share of population who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Its most recent update on Wednesday shows that 55.6 percent of Israel's population have had at least one jab, followed by the UAE (35.2 percent), UK (30.2 percent), Chile (18.8 percent) and Bahrain (17.8 percent).
In terms of the actual number of people who have had at least one jab, the US is ahead with 51.76 million, followed by the UK (20.48 million), Turkey (7.12 million), Brazil (6.81 million) and Israel (4.81 million).
Looking at the share of population who are fully vaccinated, Israel leads with 40.5 percent, followed by the UAE (22.1 percent), US (7.8 percent), Serbia (7.8 percent) and Romania (3.2 percent).
8:40am - UK Finance minister Rishi Sunak delivered what he hopes will be a last big spending splurge to get Britain's economy through the COVID-19 crisis, and announced a corporate tax hike from 2023 as he began to focus on the huge hit to the public finances.
Sunak said in an annual budget speech on Wednesday (local time) that the economy would return to its pre-pandemic size in mid-2022, six months earlier than previously forecast, helped by Europe's fastest coronavirus vaccination programme.
But lasting economic damage equivalent to 3 percent of annual output would persist, and 65 billion pounds ($91 billion) of extra support was needed in the short term as restrictions were lifted over the next few months, he said.
Sunak's early warning that he will demand more money from companies - and most individual taxpayers too - makes him one of the first policymakers from rich countries to set out a plan to tighten budget policy after the pandemic.
Britain's first rise in corporation tax since 1974 will see big, profitable companies pay 25 percent from 2023 compared to 19 percent now and the overall rate of taxation in the economy increase to its highest since 1969.
But before then firms can use a two-year "super-deduction" tax break that Sunak hopes will snap them out of their pandemic deep-freeze and invest to boost short-term growth.
The government's budget watchdog said the move was likely to bring forward investment that would have taken place later.
In his speech to parliament, Sunak repeated his plan to do "whatever it takes to support the British people and businesses" after the economy slumped by 10 percent last year.
Britain has also suffered Europe's biggest COVID-19 death toll.
"Once we are on the way to recovery, we will need to begin fixing the public finances and I want to be honest today about our plans to do that," he said.
The support measures included a five-month extension of Britain's huge jobs rescue plan, wider help for the self-employed and the continuation of an emergency increase in welfare payments.
A property tax exemption for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will now run until the end of June, by when Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to have lifted most COVID-19 restrictions.
An existing tax break for home-buyers was extended by three months until June 30 and then for cheaper homes until the end of September.
8:30am - In case you missed it, the Waikato DHB says there is no current information that suggests a positive COVID-19 case attended the recent Six60 concert in Hamilton.
"We are aware of misinformation circulating about the event as this has caused a significant increase in attendance to our community testing centre," they say.
"No potential exposure event has been identified in Hamilton and people who attended the Six60 concert are not being asked to seek a test if they are well."
They say that although it is encouraging that the community remains vigilant, it's also important to use official sources for information on COVID-19.
8:15am - David White, NZ Cricket chief executive, tells The AM Show it has "been a challenge" to organise tours while the COVID-19 pandemic rages and the country is being shifted into different alert levels.
"We are just following the Government guidelines," he says. "We have just got to make the best of the situation".
It was "strange" to see Wednesday night's game played without spectators.
He is hoping to see the alert levels dropped this weekend so that matches can be played in front of a crowd in Wellington. At alert level 2, gatherings of more than 100 people are not permitted.
8am - New Zealand has now had three full days without a community case being recorded.
The last community case to be recorded was on Sunday. Case O is a household contact of cases I, J, K and L and had previously beeen transferred to the Auckland quarantine facility. They had been in quarantine for their entire infectious period.
7:45am - Let's have a look at the current COVID-19 situation in New Zealand.
There are 62 active cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, with nine of these recorded in the community and 53 in MIQ facilities.
In the 24 hours prior to 1pm on Wednesday, nine people were deemed as having recovered from COVID-19. With two new cases on Wednesday in MIQ, that means the number of active cases dropped by seven.
Overall, New Zealand has recorded 2384 cases of COVID-19. Of these, 2028 were confirmed cases and 356 were probable.
7:30am - Jumping back to Dr Shaun Hendy's comments to Newstalk ZB earlier, he addressed suggestions that the lockdown should be lifted earlier than scheduled as we have seen no new community cases in recent days.
Dr Hendy said the seven-day lockdown reflects the Government wanting to be absolutely sure this cluster has been contained.
He said the B.1.1.7 UK variant of SARS-CoV-2 - the variant which has spread in south Auckland - is not something you want to get out of control.
"It spreads much more rapidly, it does take a lot more work to control it. My calculus is that these shorter, sharper lockdowns to bring these new variants under control is probably worth it in the long run."
7:25am - While COVID-19 messaging is available in 24 languages, the NZ COVID Tracer app is not.
Close, close plus, casual, casual plus - it has to be said the different categories for tracing people who might have been exposed to COVID can all blur into one at times.
Spare a thought for people who speak English as a second language. More than half of those living in Papatoetoe were born overseas compared with 27 percent nationally. Pacific and Asian peoples make up nearly three-quarters of the area's population.
7:10am - Associate Health Minister Peeni Henare tells The AM Show he is not aware of any new community cases overnight. He expects he would have been notified if there had been.
A total of 16,000 people were tested on Wednesday, he says. The results of some key contacts, such as people who were at a gym visited by one of the cases, are expected on Thursday.
Could lockdown end early if there are no new cases in the coming days? Henare says the Prime Minister was clear on Saturday evening that the lockdown would last for seven days. He says Cabinet will meet on Friday and assess the situation with the latest information.
Henare advises that churches use Zoom and other video-conferencing tools this weekend instead of congregating.
7:05am: Modeller Dr Shaun Hendy tells Newstalk ZB it was a good sign on Wednesday that there were no new community cases.
"We are proving to be lucky this time around," Dr Hendy says. He says with a high number of exposure events, there was potential for a large number of cases.
6:55am - Speaking to Newstalk ZB, Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault says feedback about the community's response to the COVID-19 outbreak has mostly been positive.
However, he said there have been some abusive emails.
"I just passed one onto the police because there was a little bit of vitriol in there with some words that would have offended my mother, and my mother is not easily offended, I might add," he said.
Police followed it up, but said there was not much they could do as there was no "tangible threat", Couillault said.
From Friday, everyone in the school community would have been tested twice or isolated for an appropriate amount of time, he said.
6:50am - Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous state, on Wednesday (local time) announced tough new measures to slow a snowballing coronavirus outbreak, stoked by a stuttering inoculation drive and an infectious new variant that threatens to internationally isolate the country.
The announcement, made by state governor Joao Doria, is likely to irk President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who shuns lockdowns and has long sought to diminish the importance of the virus. But more states and cities are likely to follow Sao Paulo's lead as their health systems are pushed to breaking point.
Starting Saturday, Sao Paulo's bars and restaurants will only operate via delivery, while malls and non-essential businesses will be shut, Doria said.
The measures are due to last two weeks, he said, adding that the state was receiving a new patient in intensive care units every two minutes. Sao Paulo city is home to some 12.3 million people, part of the 46.3 million who inhabit Sao Paulo state.
The partial lockdown in Sao Paulo, the heart of Brazil's economy, highlights growing concerns about the situation in Brazil. Latin America's largest country is facing its deadliest period since the start of the pandemic due to the new, so-called P1 variant, a lack of widespread restrictions to slow the virus' path and a patchy vaccine rollout.
Brazil, which has the world's highest coronavirus death toll after the United States, is seeing daily deaths hit fresh records, just as they are falling in the United States and parts of Western Europe.
International concern is also growing about the P1 variant, which arose in the northern city of Manaus, and has since been identified across the world, leading to tighter regulations on Brazilian travelers.
The domestic situation is particularly critical. Blame is increasingly landing on Bolsonaro's lap.
Earlier this week, 16 Brazilian governors accused him of misleading the country. The national association of state health secretaries CONASS also criticized Brasilia, complaining of a piecemeal approach by each state and city, calling for a national curfew and the closure of airports.
6:40am - A blast struck a coronavirus testing centre north of Amsterdam before sunrise on Wednesday, shattering windows but causing no injuries in what police called an intentional attack.
6:25am - Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett says business can apply for the resurgence support as well as the new wage subsidy.
He tells The AM Show that the Ministry of Social Development are "great operators" and businesses can be "confident" that money will be in their bank accounts from Monday.
While there are a number of fragile businesses in Auckland affected by the lockdown, others are doing well, Barnett says.
However, it is the uncertainty of when a lockdown may start or end that is the "blow".
He says business owners want to know the conditions under which a lockdown may be lifted, such as how many days of no new community cases are needed. Barnett also questions whether all of Auckland needs to be shut down or if a more specific lockdown - such as around Papatoetoe - could be implemented.
6:15am - Employers and self-employed Kiwis will on Thursday be able to begin applying for the March 2021 wage subsidy. Applications open at 1pm and payments will start from next Monday.
"To qualify, your business needs to experience or expect a 40 percent decline in revenue over a consecutive 14-day period between 28 February and 21 March, compared to a typical 14-day period between 4 January and 14 February 2021 (6 weeks before the change in alert levels). This is available to businesses throughout New Zealand," Work and Income says.
Full-time employees will be eligible for $585.80 a week while part-time employees can get $350 a week. The subsidy lasts for two weeks.
6am - It's time for The AM Show. Featuring on Thursday's show is Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett, associate Health Minister Peeni Henare and NZ Cricket chief executive David White.
You can watch the show here or on Three.
5:50am - Could Auckland come out of lockdown early?
Chris Hipkins was asked that question on Wednesday after it was revealed there were no new community cases. Currently, lockdown is scheduled to last until Sunday morning.
While Hipkins wouldn't rule out an early shift, he said New Zealand was still in a "critical period", with many test results still outstanding. At this stage, he said, we are "not quite there yet".
"I think we're still in the critical period where we're wanting to see all the test results of the relevant close and casual contacts come back, so that work is still underway," he said.
"There's some test results still to come through for people who we really want to see the test results for before we can breathe any kind of sigh of relief."
The number of cases is just one factor Cabinet considers when making a decision over alert levels. It also looks at the scale of community testing, where testing has taken place, and whether there are any remaining questions about how an individual may have been infected.
5:40am - According to the Ministry of Health, as of midnight, Tuesday a total of 9431 people had been given their first dose of the vaccine, with more than 70 percent of those in Auckland.
That means more than half of the estimated 12,000 border workforce have now been given their first vaccination.
5:30am - Kiwis are being reminded to be tested if they are showing symptoms for COVID-19 or have received advice to get tested as they were at a location of interest at the same time as a known case.
In Auckland, there are a number of community testing centres operating. These can be found in Northcote, Balmoral, Henderson, New Lynn, Howick, Flat Bush, Wiri, Otara, Mangere, Papatoetoe and Takanini.
5:20am - Ahead of Thursday's COVID-19 update, expected at 1pm, there are many test results still outstanding.
The Ministry of Health's latest update on Wednesday said that 21 close contacts of Case M have been identified at the Manukau Institute of Technology and these people are "being followed up and provided advice from public health staff regarding isolating and testing".
"The vast majority of people on the campus at the same times as Case M are considered casual contacts and need to watch for symptoms. They do not need to have a test unless they have symptoms, or are a close or casual plus contact," the ministry says.
"All casual contacts should be limiting their movements and interactions with other people. Under Level 3, everyone in Auckland should also currently be staying at home."
A total of 163 casual-plus contacts have been identified at the City Fitness gym at Hunters Plaza.
"These contacts will be followed up by contact tracing teams to ensure that they get a test and stay at home until the test is negative."
Meanwhile, 12 close-plus contacts at KFC Botany Downs and 33 close-plus contacts at Kmart Botany have tested negative. Of the 1868 people who contacted the ministry about being at the Kmart at the same time as a case, 1823 have so far tested negative.
All casual-plus contacts at Papatoetoe High School have been undergoing a follow-up test on or after February 22. As of Wednesday, 98 percent of results are back and all are negative.
5:10am - New Zealand's COVID-19 response might be the envy of the world, but that hasn't stopped New Zealanders themselves getting angry about it this week.
Professor Alexander Gillespie has written about the need for the Government to be clearer in dealing with COVID-19 rule breakers.
5am - Kia ora, good morning to Newshub's live updates of the Auckland COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown for Thursday.
It was another day of new community cases on Wednesday, but despite that, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says New Zealand remains in a "critical period" with many test results still outstanding.
Some of those results are expected to be revealed later on Thursday.