Coronavirus: As it happened - Jacinda Ardern's COVID-19 alert level decision, September 21

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has revealed Cabinet's decision to shift Auckland to alert level 2 at midnight on Wednesday and the rest of New Zealand to level 1 overnight on Monday. 

What you need to know: 

  • Auckland has been under alert level 3 and 2.5 lockdown restrictions for more than a month now, ever since COVID-19 was re-discovered in the community.
  • Ardern said last week Cabinet would meet on September 21 with the expectation of increasing social gathering limits from the cap of 10, and this will come into effect at midnight on Wednesday, September 23. 
  • The rest of the country has been under alert level 2 ever since Auckland's COVID-19 outbreak, and Ardern said Cabinet has approved moving the rest of New Zealand to level 1 at midnight on Monday. 
  • Officials are scrambling to figure out how a man tested positive for COVID-19 days after completing his 14 days in managed isolation, during which time he gave two negative test results. Experts are now calling for a third test after isolation. 
  • His genome sequencing is consistent with two confirmed cases from the same flight from India to New Zealand that landed on August 27. It's possible the man was infected during that flight and has had an extremely long incubation period. 
  • National Party leader Judith Collins doubts the man was incubating the virus for that long and has suggested he caught the virus while he was in managed isolation. 
  • There are currently 62 active cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand - 29 are imported cases in managed isolation facilities, and 33 are community cases.

These live updates have finished. 

4:07pm - A Hawke’s Bay events centre is "thrilled" that New Zealand – with the exception of Auckland – will shift to alert level 1 overnight on Monday.

"It's been a really challenging year for the team, as it has for many locals, but we are all so excited to now swing the doors open and welcome our local audiences back into Toitoi," said Megan Peacock-Coyle, manager of Hawke's Bay Arts & Events Centre. 

3:54pm - A hospitality group in Auckland is dissatisfied with the Government's decision to shift the city to alert level 2 on Thursday because they say it's still too restrictive on the industry.

"Alert level 2 is not great news for our hospitality operators, and actually all Auckland retailers will continue to be negatively impacted. We were hoping for a level 1.5, but that's more than a fortnight away at the very least," said Takapuna Beach Business Association CEO Terence Harpur.

"Level 2.5 was a lot better than l3 and level 4, but level 2 will change little. Sure, more people can potentially gather, but many will still lack the confidence to get out and about, and start socialising again.

"When we dropped down to level 2.5, retail enjoyed an instant rebound, largely thanks to some pent-up consumer demand. However, with level 2.5 then extended, trade started slowing again, so level 2 will be disappointing to many businesses, especially our bars, cafes, and restaurants."

3:35pm - Auckland Mayor Phil Goff has welcomed the city's move to alert level 2 on Thursday but he said Aucklanders need to continue following health guidelines. 

"The shift to level 2 is encouraging and reflects the hard work of Aucklanders to contain the latest outbreak of COVID-19," he said in a statement following the Prime Minister's announcement. 

"However, COVID-19 is highly transmissible, and we need to remain alert. Please continue to follow all the health guidelines, so that we can join the rest of the country at level 1 as quickly as possible."

Goff said we live in a world where COVID-19 is rampant and that many countries are suffering from a serious second wave of infections. 

"We must avoid that happening here and that's why a cautious approach is needed. If we keep doing what works it will help us return to level 1 sooner, with the welcome boost to the economy and extra freedoms that entails."

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff. Photo credit: Newshub

3:30pm - Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins is encouraging people to continue with their COVID-19 contact tracing efforts and good hygiene practices despite the move to alert level 1.

"We should rightly be pleased to see the step down to alert level 1, but we need to remember how easily that can change. Everyone needs to continue to do their bit to keep COVID-19 under control and away from the most vulnerable members of our community."

As of 11.59pm on Monday, Dunedin will join other centres - except Auckland - in stepping down to alert level 1.

3:23pm - The Wellington Chamber of Commerce has welcomed the Government's decision to shift New Zealand - with the exception of Auckland - to alert level 1 at midnight.

"The return back to alert level one will come as a relief to many in the hospitality and events sectors," said chief executive John Milford. "We are pleased with the Government's decision to move the country, outside of Auckland, back down to alert level 1."

Milford said while businesses had normalised social distancing, the restrictions on gatherings and limit on customers in stores at any one time have been "particularly hard" on businesses and "deterred customers" from shopping and eating out.

"The next goal for the country is to have Auckland down to alert level 1 safely and soon. They play a big part in stimulating regional economies up and down the country, so we need them participating as much as possible," he said.

"Businesses must continue to abide by the rules and remain vigilant. If staff are unwell, make sure they stay home; continue to provide hand sanitizer; and continue to offer QR code contact tracing to those that enter the premises."

3:07pm - ACT leader David Seymour is questioning why the Director-General of Health had to fly up to Auckland to announce the alert level decision alongside Prime Minister and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

Seymour tweeted: "So, Ashley Bloomfield, the man in charge of running the Ministry of Health, had to give up hours of his day to travel to Auckland to fit in with Jacinda Ardern's election campaign?"

2:55pm - ACT leader David Seymour has welcomed Cabinet's decision to shift the country down the alert levels, but says, "We never should have been here."

"One small outbreak led to 57 days of restrictions on Aucklanders lives, and the rest of New Zealand also being punished," he said after the Prime Minister's announcement.

"I really feel for business owners who through no fault of their own have lost thousands of dollars in revenue because the Government didn't act smart or fast enough."

Seymour questioned why Auckland is shifting to level 2 on Thursday while the rest of New Zealand moves to level 1 overnight on Monday.

"Aucklanders will be asking why they can't move to level 2 at midnight tonight. To that question, Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield gave three different answers," Seymour said.

"One, Auckland needs more time at Level 2.5. Two, the new orders need to be given with 48 hours' notice. Three, the Government needs time to draft the orders.

"If the latter is true, why couldn't it draft the orders ahead of today's decision? Aucklanders deserve a straight answer from the Government."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Newshub

2:45pm - National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee is pleased with Cabinet's decision to shift Auckland to alert level 2 on Thursday and the rest of the country to level 1 overnight.

"There's a point where you start to balance the public health requirements and need for protections with the fact that you've got to have a dynamic enough economy to be able to afford the public health that you're trying to provide," he told Magic Talk.

"I think going along too much longer would have been catastrophic. Whether or not this will save some of those very stressed businesses is a very different question. I'm of a view that this was the right thing to do, we were certainly picking that that's the way it would go."

Brownlee said being under alert level restrictions has created a "degree of hesitance about the normal things" people do day-to-day across the country.

"I think people do understand that they've got to be a bit more cautious about sneezing in the wrong places or coughing over other people and all that sort of stuff," he said.

"But we've got to try and get back to some kind of more reasonable thing... I don't want to say normality because nothing's ever going to be the same and certainly not around our border and I think generally the way we go about things will always have that little extra layer of caution now."

National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee.
National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee. Photo credit: Newshub

What does Auckland's shift to alert level 2 mean?

When the city shifts to level 2 on Thursday, social gatherings can be up to 100 people, but hospitality venues must still apply the three S's: seated, separated and single-server. 

The rest of the country shifting down to level 1 means there no longer has to be a limit on gatherings - at level 1 the only restriction is on the border. But masks will still be mandatory on public transport and aircraft. 

1:55pm - It's most likely the man who tested positive for COVID-19 after completing his 14 days in managed isolation caught it on his flight from India and incubated it during those two weeks, the Prime Minister says.

"The individual was identified as a close contact of those positive cases that came in on those India flights. They were identified as potentially being in close contact and the genome sequencing is the same. So the most likely outcome is that that is the place where that individual has picked up an infection," she said.

The man took a chartered flight from a Christchurch managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility to Auckland, and Ardern said close contacts are being tested and followed up.

"For the sake of completeness, for the internal chartered flight, for all those individuals who had gone through MIQ and already had negative tests, we are still going back and testing again all of those individuals as well," she said.

"I think it's useful to point to what the most likely scenario is, but we are not taking anything for granted and are checking all scenarios."

The Ministry of Health says the man could have been infected in India before departing and had a very long and unusual period of incubating the virus.

"That is rare but it can happen."

1:45pm - There are calls from some experts to extend the amount of time returnees spend in managed isolation following a man testing positive after his stay.

But the Ministry of Health says modelling shows that the scenario that presents the lowest risk of anyone getting through managed isolation and having an infection is a 14 day stay, plus testing at day 3 and day 12, along with strong infection prevention and control procedures.

"That is the system we have."

1:40pm - Ardern says the Government is still working on the possibility of quarantine-free travel with Australia and the Cook Islands, and a coronavirus vaccine is not necessarily required for it to happen. 

1:37pm - Details have been revealed about the man who tested positive after completing 14 days of managed isolation, during which time he gave two negative tests. 

He immediately self-isolated, sought advice and got a test and the whole family self-isolated when he became unwell, according to the Ministry of Health. 

"This is exactly the sort of vigilance that will help us keep ahead of this virus, and we thank this man and his family for their quick thinking that, all indications are, has prevented the virus from spreading further in this instance," a statement said. 

"Because of the quick action of this family, we have been able to rapidly identify, isolate, and test their close contacts. The two new cases announced yesterday were family members of the first case announced, and they had been in isolation since the first case developed symptoms."

Three neighbours who have been identified as close contacts have all returned negative tests and remain in self-isolation.

The man caught a charter flight from Christchurch to Auckland and passengers are being contacted and assessed. The people from the first nine rows who sat near the case have been asked to self-isolate and have been tested.

1:36pm - Ardern has acknowledged that she made a "mistake" in allowing people to get close to her and take selfies with her when she was campaigning in Palmerston North.

1:30pm - With Auckland's move to alert level 2 on Thursday, social gatherings of up to 100 people will be permitted. The next alert level review is in two weeks, and Ardern said if cases remain low, gathering limits could be increased again.  

1:21pm - The Director-General of Health has revealed why Auckland has to wait until Thursday for alert level 2 while the rest of New Zealand gets to move to level 1 at midnight. 

He said the health order to shift the rest of the country to level 1 was already signed off, but the decision about Auckland's shift was made very recently and it takes 48 hours for the orders to come into force. 

1:18pm - Ardern says Auckland "needs more time" at level 2 and that there is "still a need" for a cautious approach. She said Cabinet's view is that given there is no evidence of regional spread, the rest of the country can move to level 1. 

1:13pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed that Auckland will shift to alert level 2 at midnight on Wednesday and the rest of New Zealand will move to level 1 at midnight tonight.

Cabinet will review the new alert levels in two weeks on Monday, October 5, but any changes would not come into effect until Wednesday, October 7. 

1:10pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand is in a "strong" position to move down alert levels. 

1:08pm - There are now 62 active cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand. It's down from 71 active cases on Sunday. 

1:05pm - The Ministry of Health is still investigating how a man tested positive for COVID-19 after he had completed 14 days of managed isolation. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has admitted he could have picked up the virus during his stay. 

1pm - Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has revealed there are no new cases of COVID-19 to report in New Zealand. 

12:40pm - ACT leader David Seymour has joined criticism of the Prime Minister for not socially distancing or wearing a mask in a photo with supporters in Palmerston North.

"Ardern was photographed on Thursday taking a selfie with at least a dozen people in close proximity to her. She was clearly unconcerned about the prospect of COVID-19 transmission," Seymour said.

"Today at 1pm, the Government must ease restrictions on New Zealanders so the rest of us can get our way of life back.

"Hospitality businesses are going broke at alert level 2 because of single server and social distancing rules. Meanwhile, the person responsible for the rules is breaking them.

"We're glad Jacinda Ardern is finally taking a balanced approach to COVID-19. But it's a pity she's balancing it with her re-election campaign and not the needs of small businesses."

12:25pm - Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has announced a $27 million commitment by the Government towards the COVAX facility, a global collaboration working towards finding a COVID-19 vaccine.

"New Zealand expressed interest in joining the COVAX Facility in July, which allowed us to support international efforts to shape how the facility works," Peters said.

"We have officially confirmed our commitment to the COVAX facility and will invest an initial $27 million to support development and manufacturing. It will act as a pre-purchase, should any of the vaccine candidates be successful."

The investment of $27 million is part of the allocation the Government announced in August from the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

"The agreement will ensure that New Zealand receives enough vaccines to cover up to 50 percent of the population of New Zealand and the Realm, which includes Tokelau, Cook Islands and Niue," Peters said.

"It's important that all countries are able to access sufficient amounts of vaccines to protect their populations and contribute to getting the pandemic under control on a global level."

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters.
Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters. Photo credit: Newshub

12pm - National Party leader Judith Collins has called out Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for a "hypocritical" photo of her taking a selfie with a group of supporters in Palmerston North, because she was not socially-distanced and wasn't wearing a mask. 

"I was staggered to see the Prime Minister clearly not socially-distancing and no mask just the other day in Palmerston North in a level 2 lockdown, so clearly she's got no concern about it, and I expect she'll want to let everyone else have a bit of freedom," Collins told reporters. 

When asked if it was hypocritical of Ardern, Collins said: "I would have thought most people would've thought that. They'll see it for what it is. People aren't stupid. The public will make their own minds up about who's hypocritical."

Social distancing is required while New Zealand is at alert level 2. Kiwis are asked to keep a two-metre distance while in public or one metre in controlled environments.

A spokesperson for Ardern said she asks members of the public to practice social distancing when interacting and getting photos but it's not always possible.

"There are a number of handshakes and hugs she, unfortunately, has to decline and best endeavours are made to keep separated when people ask for photos, but often members of the public will come very close to the Prime Minister which is difficult to control."

National Party leader Judith Collins.
National Party leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Newshub

11:55am - National Party leader Judith Collins doubts that a man who tested positive for COVID-19 after leaving managed isolation at the border had been incubating the virus, and has suggested he caught it during his stay in managed isolation. 

"Do you really think it was the long incubation period or do you think that he had it before he left quarantine? Let's just find out the facts," she told reporters. 

"I mean look, just a few weeks ago I said that clearly the latest lockdown had been brought about by COVID-19 coming through the border. Jacinda Ardern said that I was clearly just jumping to conclusions and there was no evidence, and then last week Ashley Bloomfield confirmed it must have come through the border. 

"I mean honestly, I just wouldn't believe anything about where this has come from other than it's clearly come in from outside."

11:45am - Shaun Hendy, who has modelled the spread of the virus, says it feasible to move down alert levels for the whole country. But he expressed some concern about the man who tested positive for COVID-19 after completing 14 days in managed isolation. 

He said options to keep the virus out of the community could include increasing the time in quarantine or a third test on day five after leaving managed isolation. Currently, those in managed isolation have to take tests on days three and 12 of their 14-day stay.

"There's potential this case is due to a long incubation period," he told Morning Report. "That means we might want to take a look at the protocols that we use in isolation and quarantine."

Read more here

11:30am - University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker told Morning Report he was comfortable with the rest of the country, outside Auckland, to move down alert levels. 

But he has suggested a 'level 1.5' scenario for the rest of the country, with some restrictions on large indoor gatherings. 

He said Auckland should spend more time under level 2 restrictions. 

Read more here