Coronavirus: Why Northland and Waikato aren't moving out of alert level 3 yet

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has revealed why Northland and Waikato are staying at alert level 3 for another five days.

Waikato has been in lockdown since early last week and Northland entered level 3 on Friday. Since then, 37 COVID-19 cases have been found in Waikato, two of which reported on Wednesday aren't yet connected to the existing cluster. None have been found in Northland's community so far after two COVID-positive women travelled extensively through the region.

Hipkins says maintaining restrictions in the two regions is the safest course of action for now, and this will be reviewed on October 18. A key factor in the decision to keep Waikato in level 3 is the two new cases that are currently unlinked to the outbreak.

"At this stage, we don't know how they were infected, we don't yet have a full understanding of who might be involved in the chain of transmission," he said during Wednesday's COVID-19 update.

Although he believes the risk from these two cases - who are from the same household, is low and there will be few locations of interest. But health officials need assurance there isn't undetected transmission before lowering alert levels.

He adds that genome sequencing is underway for these two cases.

On Northland, Hipkins says they still don't have the confidence they have the full picture of the situation there due to the challenges in getting information from the COVID-positive women who travelled around the region last week.

"Getting information from the two cases who travelled around the region while infectious and are now in quarantine remains slow going," he says.

"We may not get any further information from contact tracing interviews so are now relying on other sources of information to piece together their movements."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images

Hipkins suggests that possible contacts of the women who tested positive after travelling around Northland may be reluctant to come forward due to the nature of the exposure events.

"It is possible that the activities that people were engaged with in Northland means they have some wariness of coming forward, they're concerned about potentially exposing some other aspects of their lives they don't want to," he says.

"I just want to reiterate we won't use any information obtained through this process for those purposes, and that includes [that] we won't be sharing them publicly unless there's a very good reason to do so."

There has been speculation that the woman in question is a sex worker, but officials haven't confirmed this, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying earlier this week there is "no evidence" to suggest that is her profession.

When Hipkins was asked on Wednesday if he could confirm the woman is a sex worker, he said that is "not the information" he's been given.

"There's a lot of speculation about that, but that's not the information that I have."

Hipkins says the best thing Northlanders can do to help move out of level 3 is to get tested if they have symptoms of COVID-19, even if they're only mild.

More than 7000 testing swabs have been taken over the past week in the region, which Hipkins says is encouraging but still not enough to move alert levels.

"It's also great to see Northlanders coming out to get vaccinated. There have been 19,691 vaccinations in the past seven days - that's more than double the previous week," he says.

"It's really important to keep this going. When we see a high level of testing and vaccination, this gives us more confidence to move down the alert levels."