Coronavirus: 'COVID-19 is spreading' Chris HIpkins says, stresses importance of getting vaccinated

By Jane Patterson for RNZ

The Auckland outbreak is not under control, with the virus still spreading and cases mounting up, Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins has conceded.

But the Government won't resort to going back to alert level 4 as a circuit breaker, Hipkins says.

Tāmaki Makaurau remains in alert level 3 but with 'step one' rules in place; Northland and parts of Waikato will also stay in level 3 until at least midnight Monday.

More people are turning out to be vaccinated, but Hipkins said the advice from officials was "COVID-19 is spreading in Auckland".

"The number of locations that we're seeing cases popping up is increasing, the overall diversity of the parts of the community that are being infected with COVID-19 is also increasing - vaccination is absolutely important at this point."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said high levels of testing continued "to be fundamental to us being able to control the outbreak and keep the number of cases as low as possible, as does people's willingness in compliance with the level 3 restrictions".

"It's very important alongside our increasing vaccination rate," he said.

But Bloomfield said there was still a "very active and aggressive" public health effort to track down and contain the virus, with the public health team "following up every single case".

Hipkins told Checkpoint Wednesday evening a large portion of people testing positive were asymptomatic, and the Government was considering loosening the isolation requirements for those low-risk cases.

The Government may allow low-risk COVID-positive people to self-isolate at home as the case numbers continue to climb.

Authorities were more interested in the number of cases getting to hospital, and the health system's capacity to deal with it, than the total number of cases, he said.

Hipkins said both Northland and Waikato had done well to lift testing and vaccination rates, but there was still too much uncertainty to ease restrictions just yet.

"We still don't have confidence that we've got a full enough picture of the situation in Northland."

Getting information from the two cases who travelled around the region whilst they were infectious - who were now in quarantine - had "remained slow going", he said.

"So the best thing that people can do in Northland right now is to get tested if they have any symptoms of COVID-19 even if those symptoms are mild."

Given the circumstances and the difficulties getting information out of the two women involved, the Government was concerned "people who could have been infected and may even be be showing symptoms may be reluctant to come forward and get tested," Hipkins said.

The focus was on getting those people tested without any other consequences, he said, and wanted to "strongly reiterate" the message that "any information obtained through COVID-19 contact tracing or testing will only be used for the purposes of stamping out COVID-19" and for no other purpose.

"So to those in Northland, who may be reluctant to come forward because they don't want to be identified and they don't want the activities that they have been doing to be identified, I want to provide an absolute reassurance, the most important thing they can do at this point is come forward and be tested."

In Waikato, two new cases that had yet to be linked to the Auckland were the reason for caution.

Hipkins said keeping the affected parts of the region in alert level 3 was consistent with the general response since the start of the pandemic.

"If we saw two cases popping up in the middle of the Waikato, we didn't know the origins of them, then we will be looking at an alert level escalation in those types of circumstances.

"So we certainly weren't willing to step down levels in the Waikato when we've got two cases where at this point we don't know how they were infected, we don't have yet a full understanding of who else might be involved in the chain of transmission there."