COVID-19: 'We've lost level 1 now' - Siouxsie Wiles 'gutted' restrictions being eased

An infectious diseases expert says she's "gutted" COVID-19 restrictions are going to ease, with community transmission still evident in Auckland.

Auckland has been under heightened COVID-19 alert levels since August after an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant. Nearly 1400 cases have been detected since, mostly in Auckland.

On Monday, the Government revealed Auckand's roadmap out of lockdown. The first stage of that roadmap begins on Wednesday, with groups of 10 from two households able to meet outdoors.

"I'm kind of gutted - partly because this was a step that I hoped that we'd be taking some time next year when we had vaccines available for all of our children and better treatments," microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles told TVNZ's Breakfast on Tuesday.

"The fact we've been forced into it by Delta - this whole learning to manage, so suppress the virus rather than get to zero-COVID is disappointing.

"For me, it's about thinking about the fact that we've lost level 1 now and I think New Zealanders need to get their head around what the future's going to be like - because it's not going to be like how we've had in the past."

Nearly 13,700 COVID-19 tests were carried out on Sunday, the Ministry of Health said on Monday, which returned 29 community cases - 28 in Auckland and one in Waikato.

"We've already seen cases get across the Auckland border - that's just going to be a fact of life now we have an uncontrolled outbreak," disease modeller Shaun Hendy told The AM Show on Tuesday. "Although we're suppressing it, cases will get out - we'll see cases pop up around the country from time to time."

Genomic testing has been able to link the cases that did get across the Auckland border into Waikato to ones previously found in New Zealand - but it remains unclear how the infection jumped regions.

"Unfortunately, that does mean we'll need to have some restrictions in place around the rest of the country until we can get that vaccine coverage high enough."

Hendy also thinks alert level 1 is a thing of the past.

"I think something that's really important for people to realise is level 1 is probably gone," he said.

Graham Le Gros, left, and Shaun Hendy.
Graham Le Gros, left, and Shaun Hendy. Photo credit: The AM Show/Getty Images

"That level 1 life that we've enjoyed a lot of over the last 18 months, we're not going back to that."

Even a level 1 with high vaccine coverage would come with rigorous public health measures, Hendy said.

"It will come with masking, with testing - those kinds of things are going to have to be kept in place - it's not going to feel like the level 1 we've enjoyed over the last 18 months where we can essentially forget the virus. 

"We've got a long way to go in this pandemic - we're in the process of seeing COVID become endemic so it's always going to be there. It's quite possible that, for an extended period, we're going to need masks - it's hard to say how long that will be."

The number of New Zealanders fully vaccinated against COVID-19 stands at just over 2 million. Getting that number up is key to having more freedoms, experts and politicians say.

"We will get on top of this," immunologist Graham Le Gros told The AM Show on Tuesday. "Better vaccines are coming down the track…"

He said booster shots next year will also help.

"Once we actually have a Delta-specific vaccine, it'll actually be a lot better - I think we could actually shut the whole thing down and just treat it like every other virus we have to deal with." 

Countries like the UK have already started to focus on getting booster vaccine doses to people over 50 years old.

New Zealand will learn to accommodate the disease, University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman said. The UK has been doing that for some time - lifting all COVID-19 restrictions in July with high infection rates and only about 66 percent of adults fully vaccinated.