Jacinda Ardern signals stronger COVID-19 border controls but too soon to rule on lockdown extension

The Prime Minister is signalling stronger border controls amid the coronavirus pandemic but no decision about extending the lockdown has been decided yet. 

Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday she remains "cautiously optimistic" that New Zealand is on the right track to eliminate COVID-19, but she said "now is the time to stay the course" and "uphold the rules of alert level 4". 

Ardern said, "The data that we'll be making that decision on is in real time and we need to see more of that - we are only halfway through - before we can make those decisions."

The number of new cases of the virus in New Zealand has been dropping off, with just 50 new cases confirmed on Wednesday by the Ministry of Health - the lowest number in two weeks. 

Testing for the virus has been ramping up, with the average number of tests per day sitting at 3343 out of a total of 46,875 tests undertaken to date. 

With the capacity to undertake almost 50,000 tests, the Ministry of Health is confident that it will have a clearer picture to determine whether the virus is still spreading or is slowing down. 

The Ministry of Health has also analysed the data available for 35,000 people tested, which is for 39,000 tests as some people are tested more than once. 

Across New Zealand, there are 120 sites taking samples to be tested for COVID-19, in a range of capacities, including tents, GP clinics, and drive-thru-style. 

From that it can see that generally the district health boards (DHBs) doing the most testing are also the DHBs with the most confirmed and probable cases. The data also shows the ethnicity of the 35,000 people tested. 

Testing station in Newtown, Wellington.
Testing station in Newtown, Wellington. Photo credit: Supplied

The majority of cases are Pakeha at 64.2 percent, followed by Maori at 13.6 percent, Asian at 12 percent, Pasifika at 7.8 percent and Middle Eastern / Latin American at 2 percent. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said, "The new data we've got on the lab testing by region and by ethnicity will be a key input, and to look at also the positivity rates in different regions."

Dr Bloomfield said there are "certainly some promising signs, but we want to be sure there aren't any community outbreaks out there that we haven't located.

"We're confident, but we will look at our testing over the next week or so to make sure that we are identifying any if they are there."

The Prime Minister said the ultimate goal is to "control the virus" and the way the Government can assess whether the virus is under control is by having as much data as possible. 

"We've also said all the way through that that data will help us decide what happens not only with alert level 4, but whether there may be certain regions that are in a better position than others."

Stronger border measures coming

The Prime Minister also signalled stronger border measures to come. 

Opposition leader Simon Bridges has launched a petition calling for mandatory quarantining at the border and has so far had an unprecedented response, with 21,000 signatures so far.  

A non-scientific online Newshub poll found that 98 percent of respondents agree that every arrival should be put into quarantine. 

The current border arrangement is that anyone who arrives in New Zealand that shows symptoms of the virus will be tested and put into quarantine hotels organised by the Government, while those without symptoms can go home if they have a self-isolation plan. 

But concerns have been raised about reports of people in quarantine leaving their hotels, and the former Police Commissioner Mike Bush admitting last week that not all arrivals in self-isolation had been followed up by police within three days. 

The number of new cases of the virus in New Zealand still has a strong link to overseas travel, although it has dropped to 41 percent, with 43 percent linked to confirmed cases in New Zealand, while 2 percent are community transmission. 

The Prime Minister would not provide many details about the Government's plans to strengthen the border measures, except to say it will not single out any particular nationality. 

"Everyone who's been coming through has been screened for symptoms and screened for their isolating planning - it hasn't been based on where people have been coming from."

Asked if it will be a model where people cannot leave quarantine, Ardern said: "Yes, it would be based on that model."

She added, "That's me sending a message to people considering coming home in the future. We are considering advice this week and we'll have announcements to make off the back of that."