Coronavirus: Expect more notice next time Auckland has to lock down - Jacinda Ardern

If Auckland has to go to level 3 again in the near future, expect a bit more notice than last time.

The city was plunged back into lockdown earlier this month with less than a day's notice. Many of the city's residents would have woken up on the morning of August 12 planning to go to work as usual, unaware the Prime Minister had gone on TV after 9pm the night before to announce a new lockdown.

The trigger was four new cases of community transmission of COVID-19 from an unknown source. Despite new cases being reported almost every day since then - including another 13 over the weekend - Auckland on Monday was 'ploughing ahead' into the looser restrictions of level 2, in the Minister of Health's words

According to the official guidelines, at level 2 the goal is to "reduce" the spread of the virus, with "limited" community transmission still occurring and "active clusters in more than one region". Since the guide was developed in March, the science has evolved somewhat, resulting in a 'level 2.5' for the Auckland region, with tighter limits on gathering sizes than elsewhere. 

"What we're trying to do now is move away from having lockdowns to having this far more targeted approach to stamping out lockdowns," University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told The AM Show on Monday.

"We all agree it's in our collective interest to do that. It does mean we've got to use a few extra tools. What we've found with this outbreak is it hasn't been entirely eliminated with what we've been doing, so we need a few extra measures thrown in."

When the first outbreak hit earlier this year, there were multiple clusters across the country. The contact tracing and testing systems were caught somewhat flat-footed too, so it took seven weeks at alert levels 3 and 4 to get it under control. This time the Government is sure it has the Auckland cluster under control, with better tracing and widespread testing in place.

"What we didn't have a good grasp on was how long ago did this seed?" Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told The AM Show on Monday, defending the initial decision to rapidly move Auckland into level 3 earlier this month. 

"Now we know it's the 31st of July. That tells us how many chains of transmission there might have been sitting around it. It's a bit of a different scenario now we have a known cluster - we won't expect things to happen suddenly."

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

Eleven new cases of community transmission were reported on Saturday - nearly three times as many that sparked the initial plunge into lockdown. Ardern said any future decisions to lock the city down wouldn't be based purely on raw numbers - if cases can be traced back to a known cluster, it's easier to put the brakes on transmission without having to restrict all 1.6 million of the city's residents.

"Don't expect something... as sudden as what we experienced last time... our alert level framework is designed for us to have cases while we're in level 2." 

The ultimate source of the Auckland cluster remains unknown. None of the genetic testing has linked it to any of the cases picked up at the border in managed isolation and quarantine facilities. 

There was one case of community transmission linked to a returnee, but it was discovered quickly and potential chains of transmission cut off.

"Had that been the only case we had, we probably wouldn't have even moved out of level 1," said Ardern.

"We knew where it came from, we contact-traced around the person, we knew we didn't have any signs through testing of wider transmission, so actually there, really, really tightly contained. Very different to what we had that led us to level 3. So it very much depends on the situation. We do not have to move to level 3 every time."

According to the guidelines, under level 1 "isolated local transmission could be occurring in New Zealand" - accurately describing the situation with the Rydges case. 

Masks are now mandatory on public transport across the country.

Ardern said she will be travelling up to Auckland on Monday, and would be donning a mask while in public. Prof Baker said everyone should be following her lead.

"Would you put your safety belt on your kids, for instance, when you're in your car? It's these sorts of things. And sunblock. Those kinds of measures. We understand the value of taking these precautions for our health and the health of people we care about - I think that's what face masks are all about." 

School students don't have to wear masks, but Prof Baker said he expects the Government to change its mind about that soon.

"Secondary school-aged kids... do spread the virus around. Fortunately they don't get very sick, and that's a real blessing with this pandemic that it doesn't kill young children - very rarely. But they do transmit the virus, and I think kids 12 years and over should be wearing masks in schools. I think that will probably be looked at again in the next few days." 

Principals told Newshub they expect some students to stay away for now, with parents still anxious - particularly after the weekend's screw-up which saw west and south Aucklanders mistakenly told to get tested even if they didn't have symptoms.