Coronavirus: Alert level 1 possible without finding source of cluster - Health Minister

Officials want to nail down pieces of the Auckland cluster "puzzle" before shifting the country to alert level 1, but the Health Minister says the source of the outbreak doesn't necessarily need to be found for that to happen.

In mid-August, four COVID-19 cases within the same Auckland household forced the Super City under alert level 3. That cluster quickly grew into New Zealand's largest, but with authorities confident the perimeter of the cluster had been identified and most new cases being contacts of infected individuals, the city finally shifted out of lockdown on Sunday night.

While the so-called alert level 2.5 allows greater movement in and out of the city and for businesses to reopen, mass gathering restrictions remain in place. The rest of the country also continues to sit at alert level 2, with a review of measures set down for Sunday.

The next step down on the alert level framework is alert level 1, for when COVID-19 is uncontrolled overseas, there are sporadic imported cases and there could be isolated local transmission occurring in New Zealand.

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday, Health Minister Chris Hipkins said we aren't yet ready for what is the most relaxed of the alert levels. 

"No, I think we want to just make sure we have absolutely got this current cluster nailed down. We are reasonably confident of that. The new cases that we are seeing are known contacts. They are identified people that we tested for a reason. That is one of the things that we look to," he said.

"We just need a little bit more time to make sure that we have got that absolutely nailed down, that there is no further spread in the community. That is why, of course, we are doing all of this big surge in testing to identify".

Hipkins announced last week a testing blitz targeting 70,000 New Zealanders. Extra pop-up sites have been launched in Auckland while mobiles testing stations are roaming key locations in south Auckland, hoping to pick up any traces of COVID-19.

The results so far have been mixed, with testing numbers surpassing 10,000 twice since the target was announced last Tuesday. 

Hipkins has likened the cluster to a "puzzle" and he says a few of the pieces are still missing.

"When you are assembling it, you don't always see how all the pieces link together until you have got all the pieces in place and there are still a few pieces missing."

One of those missing pieces is how the virus came to infect Aucklanders in the first place. Genomic sequencing hasn't found a link to positive cases at the border and environmental testing has ruled out the virus coming to New Zealand via frozen packaging. 

So could the country be stuck at alert level 2 until that source is discovered?

"Not necessarily. Clearly, that is a missing piece of the puzzle at the moment. If you can imagine the big cluster and joining all the lines to connect all of the cases. There are still some lines there that we can identify one way, but not the other way," Hipkins said. 

There are a "handful" of cases where officials have found a genomic link to the main cluster, but where an epidemiological link is yet to be found. That means they haven't been able to identify how the person was infected by someone in the cluster.

"We are using science here to the maximum extent that we possibly can to make sure we have got this contained. That work is still ongoing," Hipkins said.

But it appears some positive news will be shared at Tuesday's 1pm briefing, at least in terms of the number of cases recorded.

"As of last night, it was looking pretty good. So, single digits. But then, we get a second wave of them coming through overnight. The information doesn't come in all in one go. It comes in as they process the results," Hipkins told The AM Show.

"That's why we release the batch of results at 1pm each day. But looking reasonably encouraging at this point."

Nine new cases were announced on Monday, with five being in the community. Three of those are connected to the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church, a site of concern last week as officials could find a genomic link between cases associated with it and the cluster, but not an epidemiological link.