COVID-19: Experts respond to Auckland's new rules with concern, confusion

Experts have responded to Auckland's new three-step roadmap with concern and calls for clearer messaging. 

On Monday Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Auckland will remain in alert level 3 but there are several new changes. 

Ardern also revealed a roadmap for Auckland to slowly move out of the current COVID-19 restrictions.

The three-step approach saw Aucklanders gain slightly more freedom on Wednesday with people now able to connect with loved ones but only outdoors. No more than two households can gather at a time and there is a maximum of 10 people. Early childhood education will also resume and people can move around the city for activities such as beach visits, hunting and lawn bowls. 

Step 2 will see retail stores open their doors, with the usual measures of wearing face masks and keeping up physical distancing. Public facilities such as pools and zoos will also open and the number of people who can meet outdoors will increase to 25. 

Step 3 will see higher risk settings such as hospitality open but there is a limit of 50 people who must be seated and separated.  

On Wednesday, professor Michael Plank from Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury said under the new rules it's only a matter of time before COVID-19 spreads out of Auckland. 

"It's becoming clear that case numbers are growing under alert level 3 conditions in Auckland. While the easing of restrictions announced may or may not accelerate this growth, it certainly won't do anything to slow it. 

"The virus has already managed to find a way across the Auckland boundary on at least four occasions, during a period when the outbreak has been relatively small. If case numbers become much higher, it will become more and more difficult to prevent this from happening again.

"The change in tack signalled by the government means it is really a matter of time before COVID finds its way to all corners of New Zealand."

Plank said while keeping the country in alert level 2 is sufficient for now, if the outbreak spreads restrictions will need to be tightened. 

He said high vaccination rates are key but the Government will need to tread a very narrow path to ensure hospitals aren't overwhelmed 

"We are relying on a combination of restrictions and immunity through vaccination to prevent cases from growing too rapidly. 

"As vaccination rates increase, restrictions can be progressively eased. But if we relax too much, there is a risk the number of hospitalisations could start to spiral out of control. 

"When the R number is above 1, cases will continue to grow relentlessly until either more immunity - or tougher restrictions - bring it back under 1. Getting vaccination rates up is crucial but will take time, so the government may yet be forced to tighten restrictions to protect our hospitals and our at-risk populations."

Associate professor from the School of Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland Siouxsie Wiles agreed. 

Wiles said she was hoping the transition away from elimination to suppression happened next year when vaccination rates were higher. 

"The easing of restrictions that evidence shows have a marginal impact on transmission signal a pragmatic transition from the elimination strategy to one of suppression, where we use vaccination and vaccine passports, masks, improved ventilation, rapid-testing, and other tools to minimise transmission, and testing, contact-tracing, and isolation to control transmission chains and clusters as they emerge. 

"It is clear we have to keep cases as low as possible or we risk overwhelming our healthcare system, especially at the moment while over half of New Zealanders are not fully vaccinated.

"I had personally hoped we would be making this transition sometime next year, when vaccines were likely to become available to our under-12s, and without COVID-19 in our community. "

Wiles said the fact the transition is happening during an active Delta outbreak means the rest of New Zealand can't drop down to level 1 yet. 

"It would be dangerous to grant the rest of New Zealand the freedoms of alert level 1 that we have all enjoyed since COVID-19 first emerged last year. 

"We have ample evidence that the border around Auckland is not impenetrable, so those freedoms mean the chance of a super-spreader event are too high."

Epidemiologist and senior research fellow at the University of Otago's Department of Public Health Dr Amanda Kvalsvig told Newshub the Government needs more clear and transparent communication during the transition. 

"After the muddled and confusing messages on Monday, it's time for clear and transparent communication from the Government. 

"It's not an exaggeration to say that decisions being made now could determine New Zealand's future health and wellbeing for years to come. We need information.

"First, we need to know what the strategy is now: is it elimination or suppression? The two strategies are very different in their aims and objectives. Because this strategy decision is so critical, the Government will need to 'show its working' by making available the evidence and criteria underpinning the choice of strategy. 

Kvalsvig said Aucklanders also need clarity about how the new strategy will be delivered and how vulnerable Kiwis will be kept safe in the process. 

"What is the plan to keep New Zealanders safe until full vaccination and beyond? What resources will be available to protect people that are most at risk, including Māori, Pasifika, people with underlying conditions, people experiencing marginalisation, and all of the children?

"Finally, if the strategy is now suppression, we need to know who was consulted on the change and what they asked for. Landmark policy decisions with a profound impact on health need a participatory decision process, ensuring that those who are most at risk have a voice and a place at the table when key decisions are being made about their lives and health."