Coronavirus: Alert level announcement looming after Thursday Cabinet meeting, National criticises delay

Government ministers have met to discuss New Zealand's alert level settings, but Aucklanders won't find out if restrictions will be lifted until later on Friday. 

That's prompted criticism from National, who says Aucklanders deserve to know as soon as possible if the city is moving to alert level 1.

On Sunday morning, Auckland shifted out of lockdown into alert level 2, with another possible move down alert levels signalled for Friday evening if nothing of concern arose. With gatherings still limited to 100 people, hospitality businesses and event organisers are anxiously waiting to see if restrictions will be lifted ahead of the weekend. 

Cabinet met on Thursday evening to look at the alert level settings, prompting questions as to why Kiwis will not be informed of any change until 11:30am on Friday.

National's Judith Collins says the wait is "not good enough", while the party's COVID-19 spokesperson, Chris Bishop, says there are many event organisers and hospitality establishment owners waiting on the Government's decision.

Max Tweedie, director of Auckland's Pride, expressed his frustration on Thursday night, saying there are Pride events waiting on the announcement.

"Time is an invaluable resource when we're rescheduling shows, communicating with our audiences, and [to] be able to quickly and effectively roll out changes."

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins explained that while ministers may meet to discuss the levels, that doesn't mean a final decision is being made. 

"It is not necessarily about making a final decision at this point," Hipkins said. "It is about making sure that we have all of the right information, that everything is being followed-up, that if there are any additional issues that people need information on before that final button gets pushed, that we have that. We will make an announcement as soon as we are able to."

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has stressed that alert level decisions are made based on the latest information to hand and the Director-General of Health's advice.

"We are wanting to make sure that we have got all of the right information to make a good decision," Hipkins said. "The last thing we want to do is make a decision without all the right information and find ourselves in the position that we already have where we then had to change the decision."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was also questioned on Thursday about the timing of the announcement. 

"We very much apply time periods based on periods of infection and transmission, once we’ve had a case that’s been in the community," she said. "So it’s not just about the point that we make the decision. We’re often factoring in those time periods at the same time."

Friday will mark two weeks on from Case M's visit to a populated gym. COVID-19 typically has a two-week incubation period.

Case M was the positive case that prompted Auckland's return to lockdown on February 28. At the time, they had no immediately apparent link to the current cluster, but a connection between them and another case later emerged. It also concerned officials that Case M had visited a number of public locations.

All contacts from the gym have come back negative. The Ministry of Health had been trying to track down one person who was slow to get tested, but on Wednesday announced they had been tested and returned a negative result. 

Last Friday, when Ardern announced Auckland would move out of alert level 3 lockdown, she said a shift down to alert level 1 was possible "if we are in a position to do so". She said the Government's plan was "consistent with our cautious and careful elimination strategy".

Ardern explained that even if a community case did pop up, it wouldn't necessarily mean that alert level 1 was out of the question. 

"It all depends very much on the context. If we're seeing them within identified contacts - people who we've already asked to be isolating - then that would not necessarily stand in the way of a change of alert level. But we always keep it under advisement."

Since then, there have been no further community cases. There has also been a solid amount of testing undertaken in recent days. On Wednesday, 6448 tests were processed, with the seven-day rolling average being 7167 per day. On Tuesday, 8618 tests were processed.

American yachtsman Ken Read told The AM Show on Thursday that he is eager for restrictions to be lifted in time for the America's Cup races this weekend in Auckland. 

"When we walked down yesterday morning the Viaduct was just starting to buzz a little bit and it felt different. But I have to admit, it didn't feel America's Cup-ish. I think if we can get this back to level 1, this thing is a buzz," he told The AM Show. 

"You saw a lot of boats out there yesterday, but still that stadium course - that course that Grant Dalton dreamt of right smack in the middle of the harbour - that's really what this regatta's all about. That's the hope and that's the dream of all the people putting it on. 

"So I think without level 1 it's not going to seem not quite America's Cup-ish. If it does drop down that level I think this place goes crazy." 

Races went ahead on Wednesday, but large gatherings weren't allowed down on the waterfront due to the alert level 2 rules.