There are promising signs that Waikato is ready to shift out of lockdown and join the majority of the country at alert level 2, says COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins - and officials are not ruling out an easing of restrictions for Northland either, despite recent developments.
Both regions will have their alert level settings reviewed by Cabinet on Wednesday, with restrictions to remain in place until at least 11:59pm on Thursday.
Last week, a snap lockdown in Waikato was extended to encompass a broader area of the region after new cases of COVID-19 were detected outside the known hotspots. The Waitomo, Waipā and Ōtorohanga districts joined Huntly, Ngāruawāhia, Te Kauwhata, Raglan and Hamilton City at alert level 3 after residents of Kāwhia and Karāpiro tested positive for the virus.
However, there are positive signs the outbreak in Waikato has been contained, Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Wednesday morning. Each infection in the region has been linked back to the index case, who tested positive in Hamilton East on the weekend of October 2 and October 3.
He says contact tracing teams are feeling "reasonably comfortable they've got a ring around this particular outbreak", a particularly "encouraging" sign being that the new cases are known contacts of existing infections.
A return to alert level 2 is also not being ruled out for Northland, which entered a snap lockdown on Friday night after an Auckland woman, who travelled widely around the region earlier in the week, tested positive for COVID-19. The individual, who has refused to cooperate with authorities, is believed to have used falsified documents to breach Auckland's northern boundary. A second woman she travelled with was located by authorities in west Auckland on Monday and returned a positive test on Tuesday.
However, officials are now investigating a truck driver who travelled from Auckland to Northland for work and later tested positive, Hipkins said.
"We did have a result in last night around a truck driver who has travelled from Auckland up into Northland, so there's a case investigation going on about that at the moment to identify if there's any additional risk," he told The AM Show.
"Obviously people working in that freight and logistics industry take protective measures to make sure they keep themselves and their customers safe, so that's what the investigation will be looking at. Then of course we'll look at the overall number of tests that we're seeing out of Northland."
The investigation will not "necessarily" impact Cabinet's decision as to whether Northland is ready to return to alert level 2 on Friday, Hipkins said.
"No, I wouldn't necessarily say that. I think it will depend on the nature of the risk that might have been identified in the last 24 hours or so. As of this time yesterday, we hadn't seen anything that would necessarily stop the move we signalled earlier in the week."
He added he wasn't aware of any new cases being recorded overnight.
However, a return to alert level 2 for Waikato and Northland may be short lived, with Hipkins noting it's only "a question of time" before cases begin cropping up in other parts of the country.
The Government is facing scrutiny over the security of Auckland's borders, with recent developments - such as the COVID-positive woman using falsified documents to pass through the northern checkpoints - prompting concern the boundary is not watertight.
Worries have also been raised regarding the testing requirements for inter-regional travel, with epidemiologist Michael Baker telling Newshub there's so many holes in the system, "you could drive a truck through it". According to a report by Newshub on Tuesday, the official rules state that motorists don't need to present a negative result at the border - just evidence that a test has been taken.
Hipkins dismissed this on The AM Show, saying proof of a negative test must be provided at the checkpoints. However, he did acknowledge that maintaining a sealed and impenetrable barrier around Auckland is not practical, given the region is New Zealand's leading economic hub.
"It is difficult to have a very tight border around Auckland… people do need to be able to come and go," he said.
"It's going to be increasingly difficult to keep COVID-19 contained within just Auckland. It's clear we're not going to get back to zero, therefore it's a question of time before we start seeing cases pop up in other parts of the country, so we have to be ready for that."
When asked by host Ryan Bridge if the Government needed to "beef up" the border to protect Northland and Waikato from future outbreaks, Hipkins argued there are "practical considerations" that must be taken into account - including that both regions get the majority of their medical supplies from Auckland.
"We can't just create Auckland as a complete island… we do need to have some movement at the border. It's quite hard to envisage a scenario where we could do otherwise."
He acknowledged that recent data modelling by Professor Michael Plank - predicting that New Zealand could start recording 160 cases of COVID-19 each day by early November - is "within the realms of possibility".
"That is one of the possible scenarios, where we could see case numbers continue to escalate into the 100s by early November... that's true and within the realms of possibility," he said, adding that the Government is looking at a range of models outlining various scenarios, which are dependent on the ongoing response.
"We do have to be prepared for the fact that case numbers could go up."
Meanwhile, officials are pleased with a "really encouraging" uptick in vaccination rates, with Hipkins hopeful that 90 percent of Auckland's eligible population may be vaccinated with their first jab by the end of the week.
"It certainly [would open] up a lot more possibilities… higher rates of vaccination will give us a lot more confidence in being able to continue to step down in that way that we set out.
"We have set out a roadmap to step down those restrictions in Auckland."