Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern admits COVID-19 Delta outbreak has grown at pace 'beyond what we expected'

The COVID-19 outbreak in Auckland has grown at a pace "beyond what we have expected", Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has admitted. 

Ardern's comments came as she visited vaccination sites in Taranaki on Friday. She was asked how likely it was that Auckland could see restrictions ease in the coming weeks.

"You will have already seen that we laid out a plan for Auckland that depending on what is happening with the outbreak and of course vaccination levels, we considered opportunities week-by-week for those step downs," she told reporters. 

"As you will have seen though of course, the outbreak has continued to grow - we expected that - but at a pace that is beyond what we have expected. 

"What I'm asking Aucklanders: please, continue to stick to those rules, keep getting vaccinated. That will help us with easing restrictions."

The Ministry of Health registered 65 new community cases of COVID-19 on Friday, all in Auckland, after 71 were reported on Thursday, all in Auckland as well. There are 107 unlinked cases from the past 14 days. 

Ardern said earlier this week that some transmission of COVID-19 was happening via food delivery, taxi services and construction sites - all allowed under alert level 3. 

But Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said on Thursday a large proportion of cases were attributed to private indoor gatherings, which is against the rules. 

Under Auckland's alert level 3 step 1 rules, Aucklanders can meet up with one other household bubble outside. They can also go hunting, golfing, or participate in outdoor exercise classes, among other recreational outdoor activities. 

When the time comes for Auckland to shift up to step 2, retail will return to the city, public facilities like libraries will be able to open again, and gatherings of up to 25 people outdoors will be permitted. 

Under step 3, hospitality venues will be allowed to reopen with a limit of 50 people, events like cinemas and casinos will open their doors again, and indoor social gatherings will be permitted with a limit of 50 people. 

The Government has not provided a date for when step 1 and step 2 will commence.  

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to reporters in Taranaki.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to reporters in Taranaki. Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern will next week unveil a revamped alert level system, which will take vaccination rates into consideration. 

"We've been consulting on a system like that over the last couple of weeks so yes, that is part of our thinking," Ardern said, when asked if a traffic light system is under consideration

"What we're looking to do is use the fact that we now have many New Zealanders who are vaccinated. So, how can we use vaccination as a way to give greater access to some of the things that have been high-risk in the past?

"We know for instance that in the future, if someone for instance who is vaccinated happens to have COVID, that they're much more likely to have a much more mild or even asymptomatic experience. 

"So we do need to have a range of options for how we care for those individuals."

As Auckland's lockdown stretches into week nine, the city will learn its alert level fate on Monday, along with Northland and parts of Waikato. 

"On Monday, we'll be making decisions again based on the step downs we've talked about, but later in the week is when we'll be setting out what our new framework using vaccine certificates will look like," Ardern said. 

"That's when we anticipate to give a bit more certainty for Aucklanders about what will happen in the future."

Ardern said Auckland's fate doesn't necessarily depend on reaching 90 percent vaccination. Ministry of Health data shows 88 percent of eligible Aucklanders have had one dose, with 67 percent fully vaccinated. 

"We did expect there would be some growth in the outbreak, in recent days it has been growing faster than anyone would like to see," Ardern said. 

"What's critical for us is that we know we can continue to contain and control it if everyone supports the effort by continuing to follow the restrictions."

The Ministry of Health data shows 83 percent of eligible New Zealanders have had one dose of Pfizer, while 62 percent are now fully vaccinated.