All of New Zealand, outside of Auckland, should be safe to move to alert level 2 this week as long as this area meets three conditions, epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says.
Auckland is in its third week of an alert level 4 lockdown, while the rest of New Zealand has moved down to level 3.
Cabinet is meeting on Monday to discuss whether regions outside of Auckland can drop down alert levels.
Baker says all areas outside of the super city should be safe to move to level 2 after Tuesday this week if three conditions are met: there's no evidence of ongoing transmission of COVID-19 outside of Auckland, level 2 conditions are enhanced to prevent the spread of the disease, and measures are in place to minimise the risk of essential workers infected with the virus from carrying it out of Auckland to other parts of the country.
Baker says there are several ways rules in level 2 could be changed to give a "more effective barrier" against the Delta variant.
"The essential changes are firstly to require mask use in all indoor environments outside the home, including workplaces, schools and social meeting places. We know that physical distancing alone will not be enough to combat the highly infectious Delta variant which is transmitted easily through aerosols," he says.
"Secondly, we recommend introducing a new 'alert level 2 plus' to provide a higher level of protection against transmission of this virus. The main additional measures at this level would be keeping the highest-risk indoor environments closed while the risk of virus circulation is elevated and further limits on gathering sizes."
Having this extra alert level would allow a more nuanced response to COVID-19, Baker says, meaning it may be appropriate to move the South Island to level 2 and the North Island outside of Auckland to level 2 plus.
"[This recognises] that its proximity to Auckland means that additional measures are needed to minimise the size of outbreaks that could be generated by any undetected cases in the community."
The South Island hasn't recorded any cases in this outbreak even though it's been through level 4 and now level 3 and there have been pleas from businesses to move down alert levels sooner.
Out of the 801 total cases in this outbreak so far, 784 have been in Auckland and 17 in Wellington, although 82 of these have recovered.
Some cases announced as recently as Saturday were infectious in the community. Of Saturday's 20 new cases - all of which were in Auckland - six had exposure events and 14 were in isolation for the period they were infectious.