Jacinda Ardern defends decision not to lock down COVID-19 case's Auckland apartment building

The Prime Minister is standing by the decision not to lock down the apartment block where a COVID-19 case lives in Auckland because the Government "didn't have the grounds" to do that. 

An Auckland University of Technology (AUT) student in her 20s tested positive for coronavirus last week sparking concerns of another lockdown after the student admitted to working while symptomatic at a retail store on High St. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins confirmed on Friday afternoon that Auckland would remain at alert level 1 because the case had been traced to another case linked to a managed isolation facility.

The Ministry of Health is still trying to identify how the AUT student contracted the virus from the Defence Force worker. The investigation is now focused on identifying the exposure event that links the two. 

There is no evidence the virus had been spread beyond the AUT student, who has been sent to the Government's quarantine facility. Everyone living in the Vincent Residence apartments - where the student lives - has returned negative test results. 

But questions have been raised about why the Government didn't immediately lock down the building to avoid a similar scenario to Melbourne, the Australian city which suffered a major COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year linked to several apartment blocks.  

"If we survive this community case without a lockdown, it won't be a result of the Government's competence. We will have gotten lucky - again," said ACT leader David Seymour. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defended the Government's actions on Monday, telling The AM Show health officials couldn't tell residents who were not close contacts and who had no symptoms of COVID-19 to not leave the building - they could only advise them not to. 

"We can't imprison people under those circumstances," she said. 

"Ultimately, the Director-General of Health has to decide that it's warranted to lock people in their apartments and not let them out for a period of time. On that basis, we actually didn't have the grounds to do that.

"We can if we need to, but keep in mind we haven't locked down whole streets where one person on a street [has COVID-19]. The assumption there is because of those common areas. We tested everyone though, and everyone's come back negative in the rest of the building."

The Government was criticised after Lauren Hendricksen, reporting for The AM Show on Friday morning, spotted at least seven residents departing the apartment block after being asked to stay home until they'd received a negative test result. 

Some residents claimed they had no idea someone in the building had tested positive or that they were being asked to stay home. 

Hipkins told The AM Show on Friday the Government was relying on "goodwill", and that although people had been asked to stay home until they return a negative test, "we can't surround the building". 

He later confirmed during a press conference that health officials had been stationed at the building to secure it and admitted that officials should have been at the building overnight.  

"My understanding was that public health [officials] were going to be there last night. It became apparent early this morning that there weren't people at the front door and so as soon as I became aware of that I got on the phone and made sure that it happened," Hipkins said. 

"The testing was happening last night. There was clear guidance that there should have been additional support there." 

Seymour said he was shocked that journalists camped outside the building were quicker than health officials to tell residents that one of their neighbours had tested positive for COVID-19. 

"One of the first actions the Ministry of Health should have taken was to door-knock every single person at the Vincent Residences encouraging them to get a test and isolate."

Ardern said the fact that Auckland is not under lockdown restrictions is a testament to the Government's actions.  

"Ultimately, the fact that we're at level 1 managing these things says that the system is working as we would intend. It is a virus and so as long as we've got that number of New Zealanders coming home, there will be risk. It's all about managing and we're doing really well."

Saturday saw the highest number of tests in one day at a weekend since Sunday, August 16. Nearly 70 percent of the testing done on Saturday was in the Auckland region.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker has warned that having COVID-19 managed isolation facilities in our largest cities is an ongoing concern due to the risk of people unknowingly spreading the virus when they leave.