Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern to reveal Auckland's alert level fate as expert floats '1.5' for rest of New Zealand

A public health expert has floated the idea of New Zealand shifting to an "alert level 1.5" scenario and keeping Auckland under its level 2.5 settings, ahead of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealing Cabinet's decision at 1pm. 

It's been two weeks since Aucklanders woke up to what the Prime Minister described as "level 2.5", where businesses and schools were allowed to open again but social gatherings have been restricted to no more than 10 people except for funerals. 

The rest of New Zealand has been under level 2 as a precaution for about a month now after community transmission of COVID-19 was discovered in Auckland, and it has now been four months since there was a coronavirus case in the South Island. 

Otago University Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, believes there's "a case" for moving the rest of New Zealand down to alert level 1, but says he would prefer to see an "alert level 1.5" and have a limit on large indoor gatherings. 

"We've been advocating for having another level; 1.5, just like 2.5, and this is really so that we can limit the size of big indoor gatherings because that's where you can get these super-spreading episodes," he told The AM Show on Monday.

"I think many people around the country, they want to get the added freedom of level 1, but I think we all have some concerns about still limiting the potential for transmission of this virus."

The Prime Minister said two weeks ago that Cabinet would review the alert level settings on September 14 and the decision will be announced on Monday at 1pm in Dunedin, although any alert level changes wouldn't come into effect until Wednesday. 

It comes as two new cases of COVID-19 were reported by the Ministry of Health on Sunday, one of them a returnee in managed isolation, and the other a worker at Auckland's Jet Park quarantine facility who tested positive during weekly surveillance. 

The case is still being investigated to find out if the infection came from the community or from within the quarantine facility, and at this stage no obvious links to other cases in the community have been established. 

It's not the first time a staff member at the managed isolation facilities has contracted the virus and the Prime Minister has talked about how it doesn't mean Auckland will be plunged back into a level 3 lockdown. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will reveal at 1pm if there will be a change in the alert level settings.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will reveal at 1pm if there will be a change in the alert level settings. Photo credit: Getty

A maintenance worker at the Rydges Hotel facility tested positive last month and it was the first case not linked to the south Auckland cluster. But the worker's close contacts were identified quickly and it didn't spread any further. 

Ardern explained last month that if the Rydges case happened on its own without the current south Auckland cluster, the Government would not have needed to increase restrictions across the country. 

"Here we saw a worker from a managed isolation facility test positive through the testing of all staff," she said. "We quickly identified the close contacts. They were tested and they were isolated."

More than 7000 tests processed on Saturday - a high number for the weekend - and the Ministry of Health's contact tracing team has identified 3664 close contacts of cases since August 11, of which 3650 have been contacted and are self-isolating. 

But Cabinet will also have to consider the two mini-clusters in Auckland and the risks they pose. 

There are 33 cases in the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship group and 15 cases in the bereavement events group, which was sparked when an infectious church member who should have been isolating visited a bereaved family's home on August 27. 

Leaders of the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship have actively encouraged all members of the congregation to get retested for COVID-19 and comply with other public health advice, and so far 98 percent of both groups have been tested. 

With the ongoing uncertainty of the Auckland cluster, experts seem to be suggesting it's unlikely the city will be moved out of level 2 on Monday, but the hospitality industry is pleading for a move down to save it from collapse. 

Takapuna Beach Business Association chief executive Terence Harpur revealed on Sunday the results of the latest Marketview weekly report which showed spending in Takapuna on hospitality and accommodation was -26.3 percent.

"We'd love to see a level 1.5 come into play from Wednesday night," Harpur said. "There have been significant improvements in contact tracing, many Kiwis are now wearing masks, and the community is much more educated about overall health protection."

Meanwhile there is pressure politically to bring the rest of New Zealand out of level 2, a move suggested by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who sits at the Cabinet table as Deputy Prime Minister. 

"What on earth are we doing here in a lockdown [level 2] in the South Island when this is an Auckland-focused issue?" Peters told a Business NZ meeting on Friday. 

As of Sunday September 14, there were 97 active cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, 38 in managed isolation facilities and 58 in the community. 

You can watch Ardern's 1pm announcement live on Three or