Jacinda Ardern's tough decision: How 'cautious optimism' could crumble with Waikato COVID-19 Delta cases

The emergence of COVID-19 cases in Waikato just before the foreshadowed decision to shift Auckland down alert levels may have thrown a spanner in the works. 

The Ministry of Health on Sunday night reported three new cases connected to a COVID-positive remand prisoner. Two of them attend Mangatangi School on the Hauraki Plains, and at least one was symptomatic at school on Thursday. 

The COVID-positive prisoner on remand was included in the Ministry of Health's case update on Sunday. He was the only one out of 24 new cases registered not officially linked to the Auckland Delta cluster. 

"Whilst we've not formally linked the case yet, there is a tentative link, but more work is being done just to sure that up," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the 1pm press conference. 

The remand prisoner was released on e-monitored bail from Mt Eden Prison on September 8 to a residence in the Firth of Thames, which is right on the boundary of Waikato, and officially within the Counties Manukau DHB area under alert level 4. 

Electronic monitoring showed the prisoner remained at the property from when he arrived on September 8 until he self-reported to police at the East Coast Rd boundary checkpoint at Waharau Regional Park. 

It's not clear why the man self-reported to police. He was held in custody in a cell alone until his in-person appearance at the Manukau District Court on Friday. He later tested positive for COVID-19 from surveillance testing at the prison. 

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay said the man had a travelling companion, and new locations of interest in Mt Albert and Mangere were added by the Ministry of Health. 

There are nine people in the household the prisoner was remanded to, including the school kids who tested positive. Five others have tested negative so far. It's understood the cases did not originate at the school. 

"It certainly wouldn't have started at the school," Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told The AM Show on Monday. He said there was a "tentative link" between the prisoner and the Delta cluster, and investigations were ongoing. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will announce Auckland's alert level decision at 4pm from the Beehive.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will announce Auckland's alert level decision at 4pm from the Beehive. Photo credit: Getty Images

"Four police staff are isolating following contact with this case," Dr McElnay said. 

"Corrections have advised that as the prison is closed to all visitors, only essential staff were on site. Five Corrections staff and six prisoners have been identified as contacts and are isolating."

Ardern said the case was picked up thanks to surveillance testing at the prison. 

"Corrections treat, at level 3 and 4, new incoming prisoners as they would an individual coming into our border. They are tested at day zero, they continue to have tests through to day 12, they wear masks and staff wear PPE and they work through a process to ensure everyone is COVID-free before they're integrated," she said. 

"Off the back of that testing is how they've detected this new case."

What does it mean for Auckland?

Auckland has been under alert level 4 restrictions for five weeks now, at a cost of more than $1 billion a week in lost economic output, and understandably, people are getting restless. 

Ardern said last week Cabinet made an in-principle decision to move Auckland down to alert level 3 this week, depending on how the outbreak was looking. 

Ardern seemed optimistic on Sunday. There were just four unlinked cases that hadn't yet been epidemiologically linked to the Delta cluster. And like unlinked cases before, it's probably just a matter of time before links are established. 

"We have had unlinked cases over the course of this week but we took the opportunity today to re-review some of those cases. Many of them have been subsequently linked over the days that followed," Ardern said. 

"Despite larger case numbers, they continue to be dominated by household contacts."

Dr McElnay echoed Ardern's optimism. 

"We're still cautiously optimistic that the vast bulk of this outbreak is under control and we're just dealing with a long tail."

But the emergence of cases beyond Auckland might spook officials. They may heed the advice of experts like Otago University Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist, who told The AM Show the Waikato region should be ring-fenced. 

It may be that Auckland shifts down to alert level 3 as planned, while the Waikato joins them by going up from level 2. 

Auckland has been under alert level 4 restrictions for five weeks.
Auckland has been under alert level 4 restrictions for five weeks. Photo credit: Getty Images

But it's also worth considering that those new cases are only just beyond the Auckland boundary, in a relatively isolated community, so officials may consider the risk low enough to proceed with Auckland shifting down to level 3, while the rest of the country continues under level 2. 

"So long as we're in a level 3 or 4 situation in Auckland, it poses risk. Yes, there may be less risk once we're in 3 because that's a sign we believe we've got it broadly speaking in a controlled and managed way, but it still presents risk," Ardern said. 

"Those extra measures in other parts of the country are not there because we believe we have COVID in those places. It's there in case COVID comes into those places."

Cabinet will also consider the toll lockdown is taking on Aucklanders. 

"We take into account everything," Ardern said.

"The one thing I would say to Aucklanders is your work has paid off. 

"As you've heard from our public health advisors, they consider that this outbreak, we do not have large-scale community transmission in Auckland and that has been because of level 4 and the work that people have done. 

"Yes, we still have cases popping up, there's still work for us to do, and we'll take all the advice on the best way we can do that from here. 

"But we absolutely factor in how Aucklanders are coping with some of the restrictions we've had to date, but also the best way we can get back to normal as quickly as we can."