Coronavirus: Auckland's move to level 3 will make it harder to stamp out Delta - experts

One of the country's leading epidemiologists says there's a "consensus view" amongst experts the Government's decision to move Auckland to alert level 3 will make it harder to wipe out COVID-19 again.

Auckland will shift from level 4 to 3 on Wednesday, after five weeks at the toughest restrictions in the Government's COVID-19 response toolkit. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday said the rapid move to level 4 in August prevented thousands of infections, and those still happening were mostly amongst households - not workplaces or essential services - making the move to level 3 possible, even with transmission still happening, and some mystery cases.

"Level 3 still offers very tight restrictions, and this is a special message to Auckland here, the things that make the biggest difference for us in these situations continue to be people keeping their bubbles," she told The AM Show on Tuesday, insisting the strategy remained to "stamping it out".

"Please do not for a moment think that level three means that you should suddenly break out and see friends, families or socialise. Keep your bubbles tight."

Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago who pushed the Government to adopt its elimination strategy last year, said the move will make it a "bit harder" to repeat the success of last year's lockdown. 

"We've got this long tail of cases, and we're seeing every day, pretty much, an unexpected case," he told Newshub.

"These are really important because some of these people have been out in the community... They are a sign of transmission in the community, and if that transmission carries on that means that the outbreak could get out of control at some point."

A failure to lock down hard and fast is what led to the spiralling outbreak in New South Wales, which has since spread to other parts of Australia and ongoing restrictions. New Zealand potentially faces the same fate, says Dr Baker, with the economic damage likely worse than that of a brief but effective lockdown. 

"At alert level 3 it's possible to stamp out the outbreak fully and return to elimination status, but it's just going to be a bit harder. You have to remember why we're doing this, why there's so much interest in stamping out every last case - that is if we eliminate the virus entirely from Auckland, and by definition the whole country, then the whole country can move down progressively to alert level 2, maybe even further. 

"But if we don't succeed in stamping it out and we get this gradual increase in cases - which we could see at alert level 3 - then we could be in that state for months to avoid the situation we're seeing in Victoria and New South Wales. The reason is that we want to buy time to get higher vaccine coverage, because that's what will save us. That's the way out of this pandemic."

When New Zealand moved from level 4 to 3 in April 2020, there were about five new cases being reported a day. The Delta variant is twice as infectious as that strain, and Auckland is still recording an average of more than 20 cases a day.

"There is no science behind Auckland to alert level 3, it’s all politics," said ACT Party leader David Seymour, saying it was a sign the Government has given up on elimination and suggesting modellers and epidemiologists were getting closer to being "political activists" and "talking up why moving down might be safer". 

Dr Baker said there's "not a lot" of experts in the country when it comes to epidemiology and disease modelling. 

"I think the consensus view is that this is quite a significant risk," he told Newshub. "We know that alert level 3 and 4 are there to stamp out outbreaks, but with the Delta variant it's changing - it's so infectious."

Others spoke to the non-profit Science Media Centre, agreeing with Dr Baker it perhaps isn't the safest course of action. 

Dianne Sika-Paotonu, an immunologist at the University of Otago, said it posed "a degree of risk for Māori and Pacific communities", urging them to get vaccinated as soon as possible; Michael Plank of Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury said there "there is a danger that the increased number of people out in the community and the workplace at level 3 will add fuel to a smouldering fire and lead to an increase in cases"; and Nick Wilson of the University of Otago's Department of Public Health called it a "brave move" that should have come with tougher rules, such as mandatory mask use indoors, including at schools. 

Marc Wilson of Victoria University's School of Psychology said it might be good for people's mental health to have "a breather" at level 3, but it probably wasn't the best move if stamping out the virus remains the overall goal.

Asked if Auckland should have been kept at level 4, Dr Baker said the answer would come about a week into level 3, when the first new infections would start becoming symptomatic. He urged everyone to keep wearing masks, get tested if they feel sick and most importantly, get vaccinated.

"If everyone in Auckland followed those basic rules, we would be out of trouble very quickly. We just have to keep reinforcing those messages."