COVID-19: Raglan residents 'escape' town to avoid alert level 3 as parts of Waikato enter five-day lockdown

A number of people "escaped" the Waikato town of Raglan on Sunday in a desperate bid to avoid alert level 3 restrictions, according to a community board member.

On Sunday, it was reported that two cases had been detected in the Waikato region - one in Hamilton's eastern suburbs and one in Raglan, a coastal town and surfing hotspot. However, more infections were detected overnight after household contacts of the Raglan case also tested positive, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed on Monday morning.

At 11:59pm that night, Hamilton City, Raglan, Te Kauwhata, Huntly and Ngāruawāhia entered alert level 3 as a precautionary measure following the detection of the two cases. The key difference between alert level 3 and alert level 4 - total lockdown - is that businesses are able to trade contactlessly. However, people are still expected to remain largely in their household bubble and work from home if they are able to do so. 

The affected areas will remain under the heightened restrictions for a preliminary five-day period to ensure the virus is not circulating in the community.  

Speaking to Newshub on Sunday evening, community board member Chris Rayner said a number of people who had been living in the area temporarily were quick to "escape" following the announcement. 

He stressed that locals hadn't been the ones fleeing the town.

"It sounds like the testing and vaccination pop-ups have been going really well. There's some pretty heavy traffic heading out of town, some of that will be people from across the area who have been visiting for the weekend," Rayner told Newshub on Sunday evening.

"There definitely have been a few people that have escaped the area - because of the fact that lockdown doesn't start until midnight, it obviously gives people plenty of chances to head out of the region. I know of a couple of people heading down Taranaki ways and across Waihi.

"I guess everyone's quite concerned."

Rayner also pushed back against the Government's claim that it's too difficult to enforce a 'hard' border around the Waikato, in a similar vein to Auckland's heavily patrolled regional boundary. During a press conference on Sunday, the Prime Minister said there were simply too many roads to police, suggesting that checkpoints would be rendered useless. Instead of setting up roadblocks, authorities will be conducting "spot checks" on motorists attempting to travel in and out of the affected areas, she said.

But Rayner says it would be possible to ringfence the Waikato District, if not the region, and establishing checkpoints along the boundary would help to ensure people aren't breaching the rules by leaving the area unnecessarily - risking further spread of the virus.

"If you look at the map… and you look at the Waikato District, not the region, but the district - if you start at Miranda [Pūkorokoro] in the north-eastern corner of the district and pretty much draw a straight line down from Miranda, you've got State Highway 2, where you could easily set up a checkpoint, and then a few regional roads along the way. If you travel parallel to State Highway 27, you've got the road from Hamilton to Morrinsville, you could easily set up a checkpoint there. If you come around the bottom of the district, the easiest way would probably be to include Cambridge with Hamilton, then head across north of Te Awamutu and Pirongia, probably with only five roadblocks… you could close down the Waikato District, at least," he explained.

"Maybe you'd have to block another six small, rural roads...  but it wouldn't be that hard. It seems kind of puzzling that this is not in the contingency plan."

The boundary in the Waikato region.
The boundary in the Waikato region.

During the press conference on Sunday, Ardern noted that if 90 percent or more of the eligible population in Hamilton or Raglan had been vaccinated, the return to lockdown would be "highly unlikely". Earlier this month, Stuff reported that Raglan has one of the lowest rates of immunisation in the country, due to prolific anti-vaccination sentiments. 

Rayner says community leaders are desperate to see a boost in Raglan's flagging vaccination rate - and hopes the detection of a case in the community will encourage further uptake by creating a sense of urgency. 

"We want to see more people vaccinated, that's the only way out of this situation. From what I understand, we are 33 percent double-jabbed in Raglan and getting close to 60 percent single-jabbed," he said.

"I guess that's a bit below Auckland, but [COVID] hasn't really been right on our doorstep like it is now."

Meanwhile, Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist at the University of Auckland, says the decision to bring back harsher restrictions was "inevitable" following the detection of new cases in the community. 

She says it's disappointing there are still people who have yet to take up the vaccine despite being required to cross Auckland's alert level boundary for work. She says people in these occupations have had "plenty of time and opportunity" to get jabbed - and warns that lockdowns will continue to happen unless everyone does their bit.

"This is going to continue to happen, I'm afraid, until we reach those levels of vaccination to prevent this from happening," she told Newshub on Sunday. 

"I think it's pretty simple really. You're going to have to use lockdown measures if you do not have enough of your population vaccinated… if those rates were up there into the 90s, then you don't have to use a lockdown. You can use those other measures… and options that are less inconvenient. The solution is as simple as that, so we really need to get on with it."

She is urging New Zealanders who are hesitant to take up the vaccine - or may still have questions about its safety and efficacy - to reach out to a trusted source, such as their GP.

"It's really important to be part of the solution and not part of the problem… I'm afraid the time has now passed for sitting and watching to see what happens. We're going to be facing these lockdowns for a long time if we don't get those rates up... if you have questions, please reach out."