COVID-19 alert level 1 anytime soon? Dr Ashley Bloomfield talks about what it could take

There is still a "long way for us to go" to get to COVID-19 alert level 1, and when the border is eventually opened to Australia, Kiwis will have to be extra vigilant, Dr Ashley Bloomfield says. 

The Director-General of Health was reluctant to talk about what it will take to get to alert level 1 during his daily press conference on Tuesday, but he did provide some clues about the process for us to get there. 

The low prevalence of new coronavirus cases in New Zealand will be "very influential" in terms of the advice the Ministry of Health provides Cabinet about a possible move down to alert level 1, Dr Bloomfield said. 

"Likewise, we're finalising our planning around testing surveillance in alert level 2 and then potentially how that would look under an alert level 1 scenario."

He said when the border is relaxed with Australia to form a trans-Tasman travel 'bubble', that would "be the most likely way that cases would be introduced into New Zealand". 

Asked at what point we can say COVID-19 is no longer in the community, Dr Bloomfield said even if we've got zero or no identified cases in New Zealand that "doesn't mean we're out of the woods". 

"Elimination is a sustained game because what we really want to do is open up our economy as much as possible by introducing the opportunity for people to travel back into New Zealand. But that increases the risk that there could be a case imported."

The Ministry of Health reported for the second day in a row no new coronavirus cases in New Zealand on Tuesday, after recording just one new case on Sunday and no new cases the day before on Saturday. 

Despite the consistently low results, Dr Bloomfield said it is "too premature for me to comment" on whether we could expect to move to level 1 anytime soon. 

"That work is just getting underway and I really don't have anything further to say about that. We're only just into alert level 2; we still need to settle into the full alert level 2 parameters which include going up to group sizes of 100.

He was referring to the original alert level 2 rules that said gatherings of up to 100 people indoors and 500 outdoors would be allowed, but when the time came for the country to move into level 2, those limits were reduced. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced last Monday that the country would move into alert level 2 but with new restrictions, such as 10-person limits on groups at restaurants, religious events, weddings and funerals. 

Following public backlash, the Government allowed funerals to have up to 50 people, and Cabinet will decide next Monday if the gathering limits should be extended, particularly for religious groups. 

Nightclubs are also yet to open freely. Restaurants were allowed to open last Thursday, but venues "with the primary purpose" of providing alcohol to consume would have to wait an extra week, so they're set to open this Thursday. 

"We're just starting to think about what alert level 1 would look like, and if things were good and our advice was we could move to alert level 1, how that transition would be made," Dr Bloomfield said. 

"We're still settling into alert level 2, we've only been in it less than a week, and there are still dimensions of level 2 that Cabinet still has to decide on around gathering size."

What does level 1 look like?

The Government is yet to reveal the official alert level 1 rules because like the level 2 rules, some changes might be made when that time comes. 

But going by the rules available on the Government's COVID-19 website, there will be no physical distancing requirements at work and schools, no restrictions on personal movement, and no restrictions on domestic travel. 

You would still be advised to stay home if you're sick and workplaces would be required to meet "appropriate public health requirements". 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a radio station earlier this month that when the time comes for New Zealand to shift into alert level 1, it's likely we will stay there until a vaccine has been made.   

To date, there are no specific vaccines or medicines for COVID-19. Treatments are under investigation, and will be tested through clinical trials.

A human trial of a potential vaccine by US company Moderna has sparked hope after it showed encouraging results in the very early testing phase.  

New Zealand currently has 1153 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 350 probable cases, for a combined total of 1503, compared to 1442 people recorded as having recovered.