More cases, but one cluster: The information facing Cabinet ahead of COVID-19 alert level decision

Government ministers will consider the 12 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the fact they are all part of one cluster, when Cabinet meets to decide on changing alert levels.  

Cabinet is meeting at 3pm to decide which parts of New Zealand need to be at which of the COVID-19 alert levels, with an announcement set for 5:30pm. Ministers in Wellington will be attending in person and others will be joining remotely.

Auckland was put into alert level 3 lockdown starting from Wednesday for three days after four cases of community transmission were discovered, with an unknown source. The rest of the nation was put under alert level 2, meaning there is no requirement to stay home.  

The Ministry of Health reported 13 new cases in the community on Thursday, and another 12 cases were confirmed on Friday with one probable case. Not all the new cases are in Auckland this time, and this will likely play into Cabinet's decision.  

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Friday he did not want to pre-empt the advice the Ministry of Health will give to Health Minister Chris Hipkins, who will then pass that advice on to Cabinet ministers. 

"The health advice, which goes to the minister, he shares that with the Prime Minister and his colleagues and it's a key piece of the advice that's taken into account - but it's Cabinet's decision and I don't want to pre-empt that."

Hipkins said he is waiting for as much evidence to come through from testing across the country, which he will bring with him to the 3pm Cabinet meeting. More than 15,000 tests were processed on Thursday as Aucklanders rushed to the 16 testing stations spread across the super-city. 

"I do want to be clear here - the Cabinet will get advice when we meet at 3pm this afternoon. That advice is still being finalised, we won't get into what that advice will or won't contain at this point, because obviously that's a picture that is still emerging," Hipkins said. 

"We will make appropriate announcements later on this evening about the decisions that Cabinet takes based on that advice." 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins, with the rest of Cabinet, will decide on changing the alert levels for New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins, with the rest of Cabinet, will decide on changing the alert levels for New Zealand. Photo credit: Getty

There are some clues about what Cabinet will decide. Hipkins told The AM Show on Friday an alert level 4 scenario is unlikely because every case of COVID-19 is so far linked to the same cluster in south Auckland. 

There would need to be a sustained, intensive and widespread community transmission for the Government to choose a level 4 option - described by Newshub's political editor Tova O'Brien as the "nuclear" option. 

Cabinet would also need to consider the economic ramifications. Documents revealed last month that staying at alert level 2 an extra week would have cost the economy $450 million in lost output - and level 2 is nowhere near as restrictive as level 3. 

Auckland has already lost $150 million in economic activity over three days of being at level 3. 

Hipkins said while there are 12 new confirmed cases and one probable case of COVID-19, there is still "no evidence" of cases outside of the original cluster. 

"All of the cases so far at this point are connected. They are all part of one Auckland-based cluster and that is good news," Hipkins said.  

"Twenty-six-thousand tests have been processed in the last 48 hours since this exercise began, and we've seen no evidence of a positive COVID-19 case outside of Auckland that is unrelated to the cluster we are dealing with."

There are two confirmed cases in the Waikato with a direct link to the Auckland cluster and one case in Auckland Hospital that is still under investigation. Hipkins urged New Zealanders to be vigilant. 

"We of course are not out of the woods yet - continuing our plan to rapidly contact trace and test over the next couple of days remains our number one priority," Hipkins said. "That priority remains in Auckland where the bulk of cases are."

Auckland University Professor Shaun Hendy, who has provided COVID-19 modelling to the Government, said it was "more likely than not" that the outbreak would have moved out of Auckland, especially to a neighbouring region such as the Waikato.

"Hopefully these new cases have been caught early and the risks of further onwards transmission as low, but people in the Waikato should now be extra vigilant about symptoms, staying home from work and seeking a test if they are unwell."

High-profile Auckland University microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said it is likely there are more people infected who don't yet realise it.

"Given we have been enjoying life at alert level 1 we have been socialising and travelling - both things that allow the virus to transmit between people and enable to move it around the country," she said. 

"It is reassuring that with testing having ramped up so far, all but one positive case are linked to the same cluster... It is really important now that our testing capacity continues to focus on testing people with symptoms so we can determine if there are any cases not linked to the cluster."

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