Health Minister Chris Hipkins on why South Island is under alert level restrictions despite no COVID-19 cases

Despite having no COVID-19 cases in the latest outbreak, the South Island has been kept under alert level restrictions because Aucklanders can travel there and the Government never considered cutting it off. 

National Party leader Judith Collins has raised questions about why the South Island is under restrictions, saying on Monday: "People in Invercargill were wondering why they're in alert level 2 and they were very grumpy about it."

National's health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti put it to Health Minister Chris Hipkins and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield during a special session of the Health Select Committee on Wednesday. 

Hipkins said the reason the South Island was kept at alert level 2 is because of the "reasonably free movement" people have across New Zealand at that level, particularly between the North and South Island with Aucklanders flocking to Queenstown. 

"If you were to say to someone, if you're going to have an alert level 2 in Auckland but an alert level 1 at Queenstown, and someone decided to fly from Auckland down to Queenstown to attend a large event, then it would kind of defeat the purpose of having the two different levels," he said. 

"Basically, once you get below level 3, really everyone needs to be at the same level because of the freedom of movement that you have across the country."

Aucklanders woke up on Monday to what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as "level 2.5", where social gatherings are limited to 10 people and masks are recommended to be worn when out in public. 

Dr Reti asked the Health Minister why the South Island couldn't be moved into a modified level 1.5 if Auckland could be moved to a modified 2.5. 

Health Minister Chris Hipkins at the Health Select Committee.
Health Minister Chris Hipkins at the Health Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub

Hipkins said the level 2.5 measures imposed on Auckland are transitional and the city will be put into level 2 like the rest of New Zealand once health officials are confident.   

"We were quite comfortable that everyone could be at alert level 2 with a few extra protections for Auckland that particularly targeted areas where there was an increased degree of risk. We just wanted to be a little bit more certain and provide that extra layer of protection," he said. 

"That won't last forever. We will get to the point soon where the level 2 requirements are level across the country."

ACT leader David Seymour asked Hipkins if the Government ever considered asking Southlanders if they would rather be at alert level 1 and have no Aucklanders. 

With a smile, Hipkins said it wasn't something the Government ever considered. 

Dr Reti asked what the threshold is for going up the alert levels, and Hipkins said Cabinet will be looking not just at the case numbers but the nature of the cases and the connections between them. 

"You can have a large number of positive test results in a day but if they are all known contacts and people who are already isolating, it doesn't necessarily increase the risk," he said.

"On the other hand, a small number of cases with no known connection to the cluster might actually create more concern than a large number of cases that are connected.

"So, the numbers themselves aren't necessarily the right indicator. We're looking at what the epidemiological link is and what the genome sequencing is telling us about the links as well, so if we're confident they're all from the same cluster."

National's health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti.
National's health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti. Photo credit: Newshub

Hipkins said the "ultimate goal" is to avoid further level 3 lockdowns "as much as we possibly can" and he said not every case of COVID-19 will require a shutdown. 

He used the maintenance worker at the Rydges Hotel managed isolation facility in Auckland as an example of someone who caught COVID-19, but only infected two others who were isolated and so the mini outbreak was contained. 

Hipkins said the reason Cabinet was willing to pull the alert level 3 lever a second time for Auckland was because the origin of the cases in the community was unknown and there was potential for it to have spread. 

"Those additional restrictions helped us to ensure that it wasn't spreading further whilst that first part of the process was undertaken."

Dr Bloomfield said he has confidence in the system, highlighting how there were nine new cases at MIQ facilities across the country on Tuesday, "all intercepted as we want at the border and carefully managed within that setting". 

There were also five new cases reported in the community and all of them are known contacts and were in isolation already. 

"There is no such thing as having no holes at the border because people move across the border and there is no 100 percent guarantee when it comes to people," Hipkins said. 

"But are all of the protections as robust as they can be? Yes I believe they are. Our risk settings around the border are very low."