Jacinda Ardern has no regrets shifting Auckland down COVID-19 alert levels, so is L2 on the cards?

Auckland's shift down to alert level 3 was dubbed a risk by several experts, but the Prime Minister has no regrets, and there are signs the city could soon enjoy greater liberties. 

While cases of COVID-19 have popped up in Waikato, it may not necessarily affect Auckland's alert level status, as Cabinet meets on Monday to decide the city's fate. 

"What's happened here is we've got a new outbreak in the Hamilton area, so we'll be treating that distinct from what we're dealing with in Auckland," Jacinda Ardern said at her Sunday press conference. 

The Ministry of Health registered two new community cases of COVID-19 in Waikato on Sunday, one in Raglan and the other in Hamilton East. Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday household contacts of the Raglan case have tested positive. 

The Waikato regions of Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Ngāruawāhia, and Hamilton City - which had been enjoying the more liberal level 2 with the rest of New Zealand - have now joined Auckland in level 3 as a precaution. 

The new cases outside of Auckland's tightly controlled border have some experts - like Dr David Walsh from Auckland University's School of Computer Science - questioning the timing of the city's shift down to alert level 3 more than a week ago. 

"With an increase of cases, and in particular unlinked cases over the last few days, it is clear that L3 is not working to eliminate the outbreak. Modeling suggested that the move from L4 to L3 was a risk. We have not landed on the right side of that risk," Dr Walsh says. 

"To achieve elimination in the short term, it would require a move to level 4."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

But Ardern has ruled that out. 

"Yes, we want to continue to stamp out this outbreak that we have in Auckland, but, at the same time, it does require us to keep everyone moving as a team as well, and it's a very hard ask to keep everyone in level 4 restrictions for very prolonged periods of time," she said on Sunday. 

Ardern has no regrets about shifting Auckland down to alert level 3. 

"No. And at this stage, you know, there's nothing here to suggest that that shift necessarily has led to any change in what we are seeing currently.

"The advice we had from public health was that we should move. That was the advice on the ground in Auckland, as well as from the team at the ministry."

Dr Walsh says if vaccination rates continue to increase in Auckland, "they will eventually combine with level 3 restrictions" to begin to reduce case numbers. 

According to the Ministry of Health, 84 percent of Aucklanders have had one dose of the vaccine, while 51 percent have had two doses. 

The problem with waiting for Auckland to reach above 90 percent vaccination, as Dr Walsh points out, is it's a "long, slow process, with many more weeks at L3".

Ardern said vaccination is key to ending restrictions. 

"If we had a vaccination rate at 90 percent or above in either Hamilton or Raglan, it is highly unlikely that we would be here today announcing level 3 restrictions."

Auckland has been in lockdown for more than a month.
Auckland has been in lockdown for more than a month. Photo credit: Getty Images

But she told The AM Show vaccination isn't the only tool.

"That is not the only option available to us and if you tune in at 4 o'clock today I'll be talking a bit more about the roadmap and the plan that we have for Auckland."

Ardern said the roadmap will show the Government's "intention" for Auckland. 

"I've heard a lot of people talk solely about the option of simple alert level changes. We have more options available to us than just that. What we've been doing over the past few weeks is analysing some of the changes that could be made that pose less risk, but also just help Aucklanders at this stage, because we absolutely understand that the restrictions they've been living in, are tough."

She said Auckland is in the "awkward" position where many people are waiting for six weeks to pass before they get their second dose of the vaccine. 

"We're in this awkward position where we don't have enough people vaccinated to tolerate a widespread outbreak."

As Newshub political editor Tova O'Brien reported on Sunday, Ardern said Auckland will likely transition out of lockdown rather than experience an immediate shift. 

"Don't expect these big lurches in alert level changes. Expect that we'll look at individual measures we can take that for Aucklanders make it a little bit easier as we try and safely move through this period."