Coronavirus: Takeaways loom for Aucklanders as reward for beating Delta - expert

"Don't quite order the takeaways just yet, but maybe start perusing the menu." 

That's the message from COVID-19 modelling expert Shaun Hendy, who says if Aucklanders keep sticking to the level 4 rules they could be rewarded with a move to level 3 as early as next week.

"If we see this trend continue this week, actually the decision next week on Monday will see us move to alert level 3," the University of Auckland scientist told Newshub. 

Auckland recorded 15 new cases of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 on Wednesday, down from a few days around 20. The rolling five-day average has dropped from over 70 at the end of August to just 19 this week. 

If all the cases from here on can be linked to the same cluster, Dr Hendy said there's a chance Cabinet on Monday will move the city to alert level 3 - once described by National Party leader Judith Collins as "like level 4, but with KFC".

"That will depend on a few things - it depends on not having cases in the community while they're infectious - so dropping to zero exposure events - and will require us to have good epidemiological links between all the cases, as well as people keeping up testing rates," said Dr Hendy.

"It would be great to keep those high. It would give the Government extra confidence we don't have undetected chains of transmission. Certainly, it's still possible at this stage we could move to alert level 3 next week."

Delta is at least as twice as contagious as previous strains of COVID-19, and other countries have struggled to get rid of it. Dr Hendy said if we're not absolutely sure it's under control before lifting restrictions, "there's always the chance of it getting away on us again, as we have seen in Victoria for example".

In the space of a month, Victoria - which borders hard-hit New South Wales - has seen its daily case numbers skyrocket, with no end in sight. In July, like New Zealand they were free of community transmission - they stamped out a brief outbreak at the end of the month, recording zero cases on August 3, but it's been going up ever since. 

They're now averaging more than 200 cases a day. Premier Daniel Andrews has indicated restrictions will likely start lifting later this month, once more people have had the chance to be vaccinated.

"We have thrown everything at this, but it is now clear to us that we are not going to drive these numbers down," he told reporters last week.

Shaun Hendy.
Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: The AM Show

New Zealand authorities have shown no sign of abandoning the elimination strategy. 

"The payoff for all of this is the fact that we get back to normal, we get back to alert level 1," Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told The AM Show on Thursday. "We proved that last time and the New Zealand economy did really well."

Dr Hendy said we'll only succeed if we don't get complacent.

"What we're doing at the moment is working. We just need to keep up those basic practices - sticking to our bubbles, wearing masks when we're outdoors or going to the supermarket, all those things that have worked so far and have brought those numbers right down. We need to keep those up for another couple of weeks and we'll have this outbreak eliminated."

Mystery remains

One concern he does have is the failure to identify the source of the outbreak. While it's known - thanks to genome testing - it came from a person in managed isolation at the Crowne Plaza, just how it got into the community remains a mystery. An investigation has found the number one theory - that it was passed to a member of the public who walked through a neighbouring atrium - was highly unlikely. 

"I think it's disappointing that we haven't been able to locate the exact failing that led to the Delta strain getting out of the Crowne Plaza. It would have been very, very helpful to have identified that breach in order to improve our system," said Dr Hendy.

"We are dealing with Delta now, and we'll only be dealing with more Delta cases at the border over the next few months... so it would have been really useful to have figured out what exactly had happened. It is slightly concerning that we don't know that. We do at least have the genomic link to the person who arrived, so that helps reduce the risks that there are undetected chains out there. 

"Nonetheless, I think it would have been very helpful to discover exactly what happened in the Crowne Plaza that led to this breach."