COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern says 'no reason' why Auckland shouldn't move to alert level 2 on Monday

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sees "no reason" why Auckland's alert level 3 lockdown should be extended for a third time, suggesting she's confident the city's restrictions will be lifted come 11:59pm on Sunday.

However, Ardern reiterated that Auckland would continue to see new cases of COVID-19 emerge in the community, due to the long tail of the existing cluster.

It follows a review of the country's current restrictions by Cabinet on Monday, with Ardern later announcing that Auckland's level 3 lockdown would be extended for a further four days until Sunday, August 30. An initial three days at alert level 3 were imposed at midday on Wednesday, August 12, after four cases of community transmission were detected in south Auckland. However, the restrictions were prolonged to cover the virus' 14-day incubation period.

Prior to the Prime Minister's announcement, level 3 protocol was tentatively set to be lifted at 11:59pm on Wednesday. The rest of the country remains at alert level 2. 

When asked by The AM Show host Duncan Garner on Tuesday if there was any guarantee that Auckland would transition to alert level 2 on Monday, Ardern said: "I see no reason why we shouldn't."

"We will keep seeing cases. Even if we continue to have the number of cases that we've seen in recent days, that's not a reason not to," she continued.

"The tail of this cluster is going to be reasonably long. Last time we did have clusters up around the 90 mark, the longest one of them continued for was roughly 12 weeks. We will continue to see that tail." 

The Prime Minister said it's imperative that the tail is tightly managed, that health officials know where any new cases are coming from, and ideally that transmission is within families and households.

"That's the important part," she said.

Ardern confirmed that public health officials consider the current cluster to be contained, yet elements of the outbreak have made it tricky to control. 

During the regular 1pm media briefing on Monday, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, a leading official in the COVID-19 response, refused to answer questions regarding the advice he had submitted to Cabinet ahead of the decision to ease or extend the alert level restrictions. 

Ardern revealed that Dr Bloomfield had recommended the extension of Auckland's level 3 lockdown, in keeping with the advice offered by other leading experts such as Professors Michael Baker and Shaun Hendy.

"The view of the Director-General [of Health], with the advice of those working on the ground, was that making sure that it is well contained - giving that extra level of confidence and certainty - would be gained by having that little bit of extra time through to the end of this week."

Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty

The Prime Minister said the current consensus by health officials is that there isn't evidence of a second cluster in Auckland. 

"We don't believe there is," she said, noting that genome sequencing - a process of decoding, or sequencing, the genetic puzzle of the virus' DNA - has been imperative to confirming the source of new infections and linking them to the existing outbreak.

However, the origin of the outbreak - how the four initial cases contracted the virus - remains unclear. 

"Despite a lot of searching... it's in our interest to find out and we have hunted. Of course we've had comprehensive testing at a border, including at our ports and through our managed isolation facilities, we have as yet not found the source of this outbreak," Ardern said.

"It's a virus. Even via the example of what happened with the [Rydges Hotel] maintenance worker - he had no [evident] physical contact and stepped into a lift that a case had been in just moments before and became infected. You can see how easy it is and how tricky it is [for the virus to spread]."

If Auckland is able to transition into alert level 2 on Monday, the Prime Minister noted that the restrictions will be the same as those previously imposed. For the first week, social gatherings and group bookings will be limited to just 10 people, but retail and hospitality businesses will be permitted to reopen. The use of face masks will be mandatory on public transport.