COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern denies accusations Cabinet stalled alert level announcement

The Prime Minister has again rejected accusations that Cabinet stalled its announcement regarding Auckland's alert level settings, costing businesses valuable preparation time for a busy weekend.

Ministers met to discuss Auckland's shift to alert level 1 on Thursday, but the decision was not revealed until Jacinda Ardern's 11:30am press conference on Friday.

The delay prompted backlash from the Opposition, with National leader Judith Collins tweeting: "Cabinet decision made about lifting the Auckland lockdown. But we are not allowed to know what the decision is until tomorrow - to fit into the PM's scheduled press conference. Not good enough."

During the briefing, Ardern confirmed Cabinet made a "preliminary" verdict on Thursday, a decision that was given the green-light on Friday morning based on overnight data.

Ardern repeated that criteria on Monday, reiterating that she wanted more information before finalising Auckland's move down to alert level 1.

"The decision was that if we got our case [numbers] back on the 14th day, which was the Friday - if [that morning] we didn't see anything in the community, that our close contacts and their day 12 tests were clear - and getting to that 14th day to make that decision was important," she told The AM Show host Duncan Garner.

"On Thursday, I wouldn't have been giving a clear decision. We [discussed it on Thursday] in order to move quickly. It was a decision of, if those results come through in the morning and they're clear, then we feel comfortable moving. We got those results in between 9:30am and 10:30am, and by 11:30am we were out with the decision."

In addition to Cabinet being certain that no new cases of COVID-19 had been detected in the community overnight, ministers also wanted to make sure the remaining close contacts of Case M, a student who failed to isolate while he was symptomatic, returned negative day 12 test results. 

Cabinet also wanted to ensure that no cases were detected outside the cluster in Papatoetoe, to be confident the virus had not spread in the previous 14 days. 

But Garner continued to press the Prime Minister, claiming businesses could have benefitted from an announcement on Thursday. He argued business owners needed more time to prepare for the shift to alert level 1, which was enacted shortly after the press conference at midday Friday.

"That wasn't the decision," Ardern said firmly.

"I feel a little bit damned if you do, damned if you don't. We could have said, we'll make the decision and it will come [into effect] Friday midnight - we made every effort to make it as quickly as we could with as much evidence as we could."

She also argued that businesses, many of which were already operating under alert level 2 restrictions, would have preferred opening up fully when they knew it was safe.

"I think people would rather have known as soon as we thought it was safe to open fully under a level 1 environment. 

"It was not a matter of just because we discussed it on Thursday night that the final decision was done and dusted. We needed more data." 

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins also explained that meeting to discuss the shift didn't mean a final decision had been made. 

"It is not necessarily about making a final decision," 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."

Friday marked two weeks from Case M's visit to a populated gym in Papatoetoe after getting tested for COVID-19. The virus typically has a two-week incubation period.

Case M was the positive case that prompted Auckland's return to lockdown on Sunday, February 28. They had no immediately apparent link to the current cluster at the time, but a connection between them and an existing case later emerged. It also concerned officials that Case M had visited a number of public locations while symptomatic, and failed to isolate after seeking a test.

The previous Friday, March 5, Ardern announced that a shift 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".