Auckland will remain under alert level 3 until 11:59pm on Sunday, August 30, while the rest of New Zealand will remain at level 2, with a review on September 6, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.
The Prime Minister said on Monday that while progress has been made on tackling the latest outbreak in Auckland, Cabinet has been advised by the Director-General of Health to keep the restrictions in place for a bit longer.
"You may recall we were due to lift restrictions on Wednesday," Ardern said. "These extra four days are believed necessary to allow us to move down a level in Auckland, and stay down. We want both confidence and certainty for everyone."
Ardern said from midnight on Sunday, schools and businesses in Auckland able to operate at level 2 will be able to open, but there will be a limit on gatherings of no more than 10 people with the exception of tangihanga and funerals.
The rest of the country will maintain the current level 2 settings.
The Government is also mandating the use of face masks on public transport at alert level 2 and above from Monday, August 31, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It comes the Ministry of Health on Monday reported seven confirmed cases and one probable case of COVID-19, one of which had contact with another confirmed case on bus transport.
"Given the recent transmission we have seen on this form of transport, Cabinet has decided to move to mandating the wearing of face coverings on public transport for level 2 and above," Ardern said. "These new orders will come into force from Monday."
Why keep the rest of New Zealand under level 2?
Ardern said despite the majority of COVID-19 cases being in Auckland, the rest of the country needs to remain under alert level 2 because of regional travel and the risk of the virus spreading unknowingly to other parts of New Zealand.
"Many will argue, that given we haven't seen cases elsewhere, the rest of New Zealand should see a lift in current restrictions. I absolutely understand that sentiment. It makes sense," Ardern said. "Except for one issue, and that is regional travel."
She said there is a prediction that many people will want to enter and leave Auckland once it is at level 2, from Sunday night, and with that movement will come the risk of spreading the virus.
"There is a choice to be made. If we want the economic benefit of regional travel, the trade-off is keeping in place the social distancing and mass gathering limits that help keep everyone safe in the meantime," Ardern said.
"It's a finely balanced decision, but the right one I believe when interregional borders just don't work when the restrictions start reducing."
The Prime Minister said she had been asked if the Government is considering changing its elimination strategy on COVID-19, and she said the answer was "no".
"As I look around the world and at the experience of others, we are still of the view, now more than ever, that a stamp-it-out strategy is best for our people, for our economy, for the long-term wellbeing of New Zealand," she said.
"That means every time we see cases, we act. We test, trace, isolate. And repeat, as many times as we need. And we work incredibly hard to limit the impact of COVID on everyone."
Ardern said that does not mean heavy restrictions every time there is a new case.
"In fact, our ongoing goal has to be to maintain our elimination strategy while trying to reduce the impact on as many people and businesses as possible," she said. "But there is no denying that the price Aucklanders are currently paying is the greatest."
What is the Government concerned about?
Ardern said in recent days new cases of COVID-19 have emerged that happened before alert level 3 came into force, which she said shows how "tricky" the coronavirus is.
"They have happened on a bus journey between absolute strangers, we have seen a case we believe occurred through a retail shopping experience, many, many cases through churches."
She said if it weren't for Auckland being under level 3, the cluster that sparked the city's lockdown would be "exponential".
"This is a contained cluster. But it is our biggest one. And that means the tail will be long, and the cases will keep coming for a while to come," Ardern said. "You might remember that it took us over 12 weeks to close our largest cluster in our first wave."
Ardern said the Government's goal is to manage the cluster under level 2 settings and she is confident that can be achieved.
"That means feeling confident we have the perimeter of the cluster well understood and defined, and are not seeing too many cases cropping up that we haven't found through contact tracing," she said.
"Based on the advice of the Director-General, we believe that confidence can be built over the course of this week."