100 days of Delta: How Auckland's mammoth 2021 COVID-19 lockdown has unfolded

Aucklanders are today waking up to their 100th day in COVID-19 lockdown.

It's been a mammoth period in isolation for the 1.5 million people who call the region home - one that started with the surprise news of a single new case in the community way back in mid-August.

Over the course of the next few months, though, the Delta outbreak would bring 17 changes to alert levels, 7484 cases and later an end to the Government's elimination strategy as dozens and eventually hundreds more people were infected every day.

Despite the rise in cases, the vaccine rollout would prove to be impressive - albeit running a little later than ideal - and Kiwis' collective immunity means more freedoms are on the horizon starting December 4, when the less restrictive traffic light system comes into force.

Here's how the latest COVID-19 lockdown has played out.

How the Delta outbreak began

August 17, 2021 was a day that started as our 170th without a case in the community and ended with New Zealand in lockdown.

Early in the afternoon, the Ministry of Health learned of a new COVID-19 case in the community and placed it under investigation. They released a statement explaining the case was in Auckland and that a link with the border or MIQ had yet to be established.

The first news reports resulted in widespread panic-buying as people flocked to supermarkets in their droves to stock up on essentials, resulting in fights over in-demand products and prompting calls for shoppers to remain calm.

The lockdown announcement resulted, inevitably, in panic-buying.
The lockdown announcement resulted, inevitably, in panic-buying. Photo credit: Newshub.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield that night revealed the case was a 58-year-old man from the North Shore suburb of Devonport, who had visited Coromandel town during his infectious period.

They also announced New Zealand would move to alert level 4 from 11:59pm. The lockdown was slated to last for an initial period of a week in Auckland and the Coromandel, and three days elsewhere across the country.

Calls to get tested were enthusiastically answered by Kiwis across the country as world media laughed at New Zealand for locking down after detecting just one community case - though there would be vindication by the end of the week as the outbreak grew to 148 cases.

Days later, it would emerge that the source of the outbreak was a person from the Australian state of New South Wales, where the Delta variant had been running rampant.

A change in tack

By the end of August, more than 600 cases had emerged in Auckland but none elsewhere, so all regions to the south moved to level 3 and Northland joined them a couple of days later.

On September 7, with cases still only popping up in Auckland, every other region dropped to level 2. Auckland wouldn't loosen restrictions until two weeks later when, on September 21, it moved to level 3 alongside upper Hauraki, where a case had been detected.

Even with case numbers climbing in Auckland, it appeared eliminating COVID-19 just as we had in 2020 was not out of the question. Having reached a peak of 83 cases in a day in late August, by September new infections seemed to be petering out, at one point dropping as low as eight.

And there was more good news, with the outbreak prompting a huge surge in vaccinations.

At the time new community cases emerged on August 17, the vaccine rollout was still in its infancy with less than a million people fully jabbed. But over the weeks ahead - with fear of COVID-19 infection front of mind - things ramped up significantly.

Having only administered 2.55 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in the six months before the outbreak, that total had doubled by September 28 - just 42 days after our first community case.

That "extraordinary" demand for the jab - as described by Ardern - saw New Zealand take extreme measures to ensure there were enough vaccine doses by penning a deal with Spain and Denmark for hundreds of thousands of their stock.

While all this was happening, however, infection rates were starting to climb again. The day after that encouraging result of just eight cases on September 28, case numbers jumped to 45 - and they never went close to single figures again.

In early October, the Government all but admitted the elimination strategy was over. Despite it working so effectively during the first outbreak in 2020, it would not be feasible with this more transmissible variant.

And it laid the foundation for relaxed regulations in Auckland, which had by this point been in lockdown for more than six weeks. Alert level 3 now came with three steps of increased freedoms, like meeting people outside for picnics (step 1, launched on October 5) and the reopening of retail (step 2, launched on November 9).

But the biggest change was yet to come. On October 22, the day after daily case numbers hit triple-figures for the first time, the Prime Minister unveiled the new COVID Protection Framework, better known as the traffic light system.

100 days of Delta: How Auckland's mammoth 2021 COVID-19 lockdown has unfolded

This new system would displace the long-standing alert level system and would come into force when each DHB around New Zealand hit 90 percent double-vaccinated.

Unfortunately, this was still weeks away, and COVID-19 remained a major threat. As cases cropped up in parts of Northland and Waikato, these areas joined Auckland in alert level 3 for brief periods before dropping back to level 2.

By day 99 of the Delta outbreak, there had been 17 alert level changes around the country, 7484 infections, and 15 deaths. There are now 83 people with COVID-19 in hospital, and more than 5000 active cases.

To date, 92 percent of people eligible for the vaccine have had their first dose and 84 percent are fully vaccinated.

What next? Mandates and vaccine passes

The traffic light system - slated to come into force in a week, on December 4 - hinges heavily on jab rates being high, and gives the vaccinated freedoms while keeping the unvaccinated in a form of lockdown.

This comes with the expectation that there will be a way of checking to see who has been vaccinated, so potential spread can be curbed.

On October 11, it was announced health workers and educators would have to be vaccinated to stay in their jobs - the first jab mandates for those not on the border.

A range of industries now have mandates. Basically if you're using vaccine passes, your staff need to be fully jabbed too - that includes those in businesses like hospitality, retail, hairdressers and gyms.

This means about 40 percent of New Zealand's workforce will need to be double-jabbed.

My Covid Record is how you can access your vaccine pass and gain access to businesses and venues under the traffic light system.
My Covid Record is how you can access your vaccine pass and gain access to businesses and venues under the traffic light system. Photo credit: Getty Images

Vaccine passes are the next step and will be mandatory to access a range of businesses and venues under the traffic light system. These passes will indicate that you are jabbed, allowing you entry.

They are now available to download and use from next week.

The Government has mandated vaccinations against COVID-19 for workers in certain industries and roles, with redeployment off the front lines possible for those who refuse, in order to reduce the spread of the virus which has killed more than 5.1 million and infected nearly 258 million people around the world.

Vaccination not only significantly reduces the likelihood people will be infected with COVID-19 but also lowers the chance people will pass it onto someone else or fall seriously ill.

While for the vast majority of New Zealanders the passes and mandates will allow greater freedom and provide peace of mind about a lower risk of infection, there are a small minority who oppose them.

This group, led in part by the Brian Tamaki-founded Freedom and Rights Coalition, has been demonstrating up and down the country throughout October and November - though their protests have fallen on deaf ears.

For them, December 4 is the day their lives become more difficult. For everyone else - and particularly those still locked down in Auckland - it can't come soon enough.