Jacinda Ardern's COVID-19 re-emergence plan: The scenario that could lead to nationwide lockdown

If multiple clusters of COVID-19 re-emerge in the community New Zealand will be put back into nationwide lockdown - but the Government would look to localise the response first to keep the economy open.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech on Wednesday laying out the Government's plan in the event of a COVID-19 re-emergence in the community as is being seen in Australia and around the world.

It has been 75 days since community transmission in New Zealand, but Ardern said the businesses community has asked the Government to provide a framework for what it would take for the country to be put back into lockdown. 

What if there's a case in a community?

Ardern said strong restrictions would be applied locally in a neighbourhood, town or city to contain the coronavirus outbreak and stop it from spreading.

The nation would remain at alert level 1 and only local measures would be put in place, including rapid contract tracing, and isolation of contacts, and scaled up targeted testing of people connected to cases.

"The point with this scenario is we would look at act hard and fast, but local in an attempt to ring fence the virus," Ardern said.

What about a cluster within a region?

A significant cluster within a region would prompt the Government to undertake "much wider" community testing, on top of testing any contacts or potential contacts of those with the virus.

Ardern said this would be similar to the situation in the Australian state of Victoria where health staff went door to door to test people in affected areas.

The Government would also look to stop the spread to other parts of the country so a regional shift in alert level would likely be applied to the restricted area. That would mean inter-regional travel to that area would be stopped.

 "The aim here is to contain the spread away from other areas to avoid the whole country having to put in place restrictions so we can remain at alert level 1 nationally, depending on the evidence of risk of spread outside the region," Ardern said.

What about multiple clusters nationally?

In the case of multiple clusters appearing across the country, Ardern said the Government would most likely apply a nationwide increase in alert level to stop transmission.

 "There is an assumption in all of these scenarios that we know whether we have a contained outbreak or not. Where we don't have full information, we will take a precautionary approach, and scale back as needed, rather than run the risk of doing too little too late," Ardern said.

"Ultimately though, as with the original application of the alert levels we will be guided by science and what we know works."

She said internationally the evidence is that "going hard and early" is the best way to stop the virus and "ultimately delivers the best results" for human health and the economy over "half measures" that could see the country in lockdown for longer.

The Prime Minister said the Australian state of Victoria is a "cautionary tale" for New Zealand that we can learn from. The state reported on Tuesday a further 270 cases over 24 hours - the third-highest daily increase since the start of the pandemic. 

"It appears their current outbreak is linked to a managed isolation facility similar to the ones we run here and that the entire outbreak was seeded by just two cases," Ardern said. 

"That goes to show how quickly the virus can spread and it can move from being under control to out of control, and that even the best plans still carry risk in a pandemic."

Ardern said the Government's testing regime is "picking up" amongst new arrivals who are in managed isolation with nearly 30,000 people going through a facility without a COVID-19 case transferring to the community. 

But the Government has had a few slip-ups. Four people have managed to break out of the facilities and last month two COVID-19-carrying sisters had been allowed to leave an Auckland managed isolation facility on compassionate grounds without being tested first. 

That was despite new rules introduced on June 9 that people in managed isolation and quarantine facilities need to be tested at days 3 and 12, and that a negative result is required for the day 12 test before being allowed to leave.

"There is limited room for error," Ardern said. "The first thing we need to do is continue to ensure our border and our managed isolation facilities stay as tight as they can be."

She said Australia is currently conducting an audit of its quarantine system and Australian Prime Minister Morrison has been asked to share any insights so New Zealand can learn and improve on what's being carried out. 

Ardern also said the Government's strategy for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic remains elimination. That has not and will not change, she said. 

"We have seen overseas the toll that that takes on lives and economies.... The simple approach of limiting the ability for the virus to move from human to human to break the chain of transmission remains the foundation of our response no matter what."