Will Auckland drop COVID-19 alert levels? Experts weigh in ahead of Government decision

Experts say it's unlikely Auckland will move to COVID-19 alert level 3 on Wednesday after three new cases were found in the Waikato. 

On Sunday the Ministry of Health said three household contacts of a remand prisoner with COVID-19 have tested positive. 

Two of the three household members attend Mangatangi School. All three positive cases, and an accompanying adult caregiver, are being moved to a quarantine facility.

At least one of the young people was symptomatic at school on Thursday. The school has been closed and parents have been contacted. Arrangements are being made for the students and their families to be tested.

Cabinet made an in-principle decision last week to move the Auckland region to alert level 3 at 11:59pm on Tuesday. Cabinet is reviewing that decision on Monday and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told The AM Show a move down alert levels is still a possibility.

But three experts told The AM Show Aucklanders shouldn't get too excited. 

Epidemiologist Rod Jackson said Auckland is unlikely to move down alert levels this week. 

"Yesterday I was thinking we needed another week. In the middle of the night, I was thinking oh maybe we could do level 3. This morning with the news of the Waikato I am thinking we are not there yet," he said. 

"Whatever we do we have to stamp out this outbreak because not enough people are vaccinated."

Jackson said the Waikato cases and rule-breakers are the biggest concern. 

"It's the people that are breaking the rules who are the worry at the moment and it all depends on whether the Government has a handle on who they are, where they've been and who they've seen."

He said the big question for the Government is whether it is actually possible to stamp out the Delta variant because it is so much more infectious than previous variants. 

"We all need to get vaccinated, it's the only way out of Delta, it's either the virus or vaccination."

Disease modeller Shaun Hendy agrees, telling The AM Show it's too early to know how widespread the virus is in the Waikato. 

"I think we are presuming the person who was on remand in Auckland is the person who has taken it outside of Auckland, that's probably the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is it's actually been in the Waikato and it's come through the kids at school. 

"We've just got to wait and see and we really need people connected to that school and community to go get tested to ensure we are not looking at a widespread cluster out there." 

Hendy said another concern is the student who attended school during the infectious period.

"There is certainly the chance that they've spread it to other people. "

He said anyone connected to the school or community must get a test.

It's a message shared by epidemiologist Michael Baker who said the new cases are a "real problem" for Waikato. 

"Alert level 2 is not designed to stamp out outbreaks, it's designed to reduce the size of them and we just don't know enough yet about where these cases came from. 

"It would be great if it was introduced just to this family from the remand prisoner from Auckland but if, as has been suggested, there could be more widespread transmission there, alert level 2 will not be suppressing that."

Baker said the Government needs to look at raising Waikato's alert level settings, and possibly other areas south of the region. 

"We have to assume the transmission is more widespread than we know about at the moment."

He said the new cases prove the current alert level settings don't go far enough for the Delta variant. 

"Alert level 2 still doesn't have enough controls on transmission of this virus particularly for students who go to school. There may be a bit of physical distancing but there's not enough constraint of this virus so really this is a reason that we need an alert level 2 where everyone indoors is wearing masks including at school and school buses."

He said The Government should already be extending Auckland's boundary south, instead of waiting until this afternoon's planned announcement. 

Jackson agrees, saying an urgent testing push in that region is needed because the children have "almost certainly spread it to other kids". 

It's too early to tell how widespread the transmission is but Hendy warns hundreds of cases are possible. 

"If we do see the spread in the Waikato kick-off...then we could be looking at a few hundred cases but fingers crossed not." 

Auckland is currently in alert level 4 while the rest of the country, including Waikato, is in alert level 2. 

Cabinet will provide an update at 4pm which can be watched on Three and Newshub.co.nz.