Coronavirus: Six days into COVID-19 lockdown, here's six things weighing on Jacinda Ardern ahead of alert level decision

It's decision day again, and weighing on Jacinda Ardern ahead of her alert level decision will be whether it's worth easing restrictions on the South Island, where no COVID-19 cases have been detected. 

Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield have made it pretty clear that Auckland should brace for a longer lockdown, but for how long will depend on testing rates, how far the outbreak appears to have spread, and rule compliance.

But as we've seen across the Tasman ditch, too many rules for too long can breed lockdown fatigue, and the Government will be factoring this into its decision-making. It's a fine balance, with many things to consider. 

Here's six things weighing on the 4pm alert level decision. 

1. Spread

New South Wales has illustrated how quickly the Delta variant can spread. The Australian state tried to contact-trace its way out of the outbreak, as our Government did in February with the Valentine's cluster, but Delta is proving too quick. 

With the current elimination strategy in place, the Government didn't hesitate last week when a community case emerged in Auckland, imposing the highest lockdown restrictions - known as alert level four - across the entire country. 

There are more than 13,000 contacts and 6773 have been contacted. More than 300 locations of interest have been identified, mostly in Auckland, with seven schools now caught in the outbreak.

It has highlighted the importance of quick contact tracing. Auckland health authorities have been urgently recruiting more contact tracers as the national system hit capacity just five days into the latest outbreak. 

"We are seeing more large events and more large gatherings in this than in any of the outbreaks that we've dealt with before," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Sunday.

"That is meaning that we've got many more contacts than we have before. That, of course, does put the system under pressure."

2. Testing

But there are promising signs of containment. It appears it's concentrated in Auckland, where 72 of the 107 community cases are confirmed as part of the Auckland cluster, with the rest likely connected. There are eight cases in Wellington. 

The rate of testing will give Cabinet confidence. A whopping 38,389 tests were processed across New Zealand on Saturday, with just over 20,000 swabs taken across Auckland, and 4033 in Wellington. 

That means more than 14,000 tests were carried out elsewhere. This is important, because for Cabinet to decide if restrictions can be lifted in other parts of the country, they want to be sure the virus hasn't spread beyond Auckland and Wellington. 

Ardern said last week a portion of contacts of Auckland cases were spread across New Zealand, including some "dotted through" the South Island, so a cautious approach has been taken, especially since the virus spread to Wellington from Auckland. 

The latest Ministry of Health data shows 42 percent of the 13,230 individual contacts that have been identified, have been tested. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

3. Public buy-in

The Government will be aware though, that if liberties are restricted for too long, in places where it appears COVID-19 does not to pose a threat, people will get frustrated. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said last week the lockdown is expected to cost $1.5 billion in lost economic output, and while the Government has activated financial support, lockdown is a huge blow, especially for tourism businesses just getting back on their feet. 

To maintain public buy-in, Cabinet may consider loosening restrictions for some regions. 

"What I can tell you is our planners, for some time now, have worked up a whole variety of different scenarios for different challenges up and down the country, and that includes a variety of different regional boundaries that could be applied," Hipkins said on Sunday.

"Whether it's a regional boundary for Auckland or a regional boundary for Auckland the Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty and Waikato; a regional boundary for Wellington - these are all possibilities that are on the table. 

"We will give people plenty of notice at such time as we are looking to move if we were to do that."

4. Compliance

To loosen restrictions, the Government will need to know lockdown rules are being followed, otherwise, cases could start popping up post-lockdown due to rule-flouters potentially spreading a virus they didn't know they had. 

Since alert level four came into place, 29 people have been charged with a total of 33 offences nationwide, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said on Monday. 

Police have received more than 5800 online breach notifications - 3526 about a gathering, 1788 about a business, and 534 about an individual. Police have issued 365 infringements nationwide.

Last week police responded to three lockdown protests in Auckland, Tauranga and Nelson. Eight people were arrested at the Auckland and Nelson demonstrations. 

But Coster says the vast majority of people are following the rules, and the Government will be aware that the handful of protests here pales in comparison to the massive riots in Sydney and Melbourne, where more than 200 people have been arrested. 

"You just need to look across at our friends in Australia to see how people flouting the rules can drive ongoing transmission within the community," Hipkins said on Sunday. 

"That would keep extending lockdown further as it has done in Australia."

Drive-through vaccination is now available in Auckland.
Drive-through vaccination is now available in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty Images

5. Source

Unlike the August outbreak last year, the Government this time has a much better understanding of where this latest outbreak came from, though it's not yet clear how it got into the community. 

Genome sequencing last week linked the community cases to a person who stayed at the Crowne Plaza managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility, who had been in Sydney. They were transferred to the Auckland Jet Park quarantine facility after testing positive. 

While it's good news that we know where the outbreak came from, there is still no concrete theory of how that person in MIQ passed it onto someone in the community. 

All staff at the Crowne Plaza and Jet Park have returned negative test results, so it can't have been one of them who spread it. 

"The feedback we've had so far is that transmission to staff and then staff bringing it into the community, at this point, is almost ruled out as a possibility," Hipkins said. 

A theory currently under investigation is looking at whether people who used a public walkway near the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility may have been infected there, because the Sydney traveller was taken down that walkway when they were being moved into isolation. 

Six people walked in the open walkway while the case was in the lobby, and of those, four have been identified and three have tested negative, while one person is in the process of getting a test. There are two people still to be identified.

"We still haven't yet exposed exactly where the virus may have got from that person into the community," Dr Bloomfield said.

"We continue to pursue every avenue quite vigorously to see where that transmission might have occurred."

6. Vaccinations

How long this pandemic will last is anyone's guess, and for now, lockdown appears to be the only solution to preventing widespread serious illness and maintaining an already under-stress healthcare system. 

But vaccinations will play an important role in changing the game. Earlier this month the Government canvassed plans to slowly start reopening New Zealand to the world, but it will depend on how many of us are vaccinated. 

The Government has not set a vaccination target, because it wants everyone to get a jab and not rely on others, and while New Zealand was off to a slow start, the rollout is starting to ramp up, with a million Kiwis now fully vaccinated. 

The more Kiwis who get vaccinated, the more confidence Cabinet will have to avoid lockdowns in the future.