Public Health Director Caroline McElnay's puzzling COVID-19 rules reminder cleared up by Ministry of Health

A few hearts may have sunk in Auckland on Thursday afternoon as Public Health Director Dr Caroline McElnay gave an alert level 3 rules reminder. 

"A reminder that at alert level 3, travel is restricted and only allowed in your local areas for permitted reasons, which include going to work if you need to, shopping for food, and getting exercise," she told the 1pm press conference. 

You'd be forgiven for being a bit confused, because wasn't Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern telling Aucklanders a few weeks ago they'd be able to "connect with loved ones outdoors" and "move around Auckland for recreation" under new Step 1 rules?

Yes, Ardern did say that, so never fear Aucklanders - you can stick to your weekend plans. 

"Dr McElnay was just reminding people that there are restrictions in place," a Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newshub when asked for clarification. 

The spokesperson pointed to the official United Against COVID-19 website, where the rules state Aucklanders under Step 1 can "meet close friends and whānau from 1 other household at the park for a picnic or BBQ", and also go hunting, golfing, or participate in outdoor exercise classes, among other activities. 

But Dr McElnay did emphasise one particularly important aspect of the rules: "The key thing is for separate families not to be mixing indoors."

That's because COVID-19 is spreading indoors, despite the Step 1 rules only allowing gatherings of people outside.

"Very few of the cases we are seeing are the result of transmission in workplaces," Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told the press conference. 

"Where they are coming from is still within households, some in our health settings, and a large number in gatherings taking place inside people's homes."

Public Health Director Dr Caroline McElnay.
Public Health Director Dr Caroline McElnay. Photo credit: Getty Images

This could explain why the Ministry of Health registered 71 new community cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, all in Auckland, despite the city's eight-week lockdown. There are still 102 unlinked cases from the past 14 days.

Robertson's message to Aucklanders mingling indoors: "We need people in Auckland to stick to the alert level 3 rules."

"We did see this happening in alert level 4 as well, and sadly, it has continued into alert level 3. These gatherings inside people's homes are not allowed under alert level 3 as much as they were not allowed under alert level 4.

"This outbreak is not in a small number of clusters in a small geographical area. It is affecting people in all parts of Auckland, which makes it everyone's job in Auckland to help prevent its spread."

He said New Zealand's alert level 3 is amongst the toughest of restrictions applied by any country in the world. The Oxford Stringency Index places New Zealand as the country with the highest level of restrictions anywhere in the OECD at the moment. 

"Level 3 has worked to contain outbreaks in Auckland before, but with Delta we know we know we are facing a more tricky and challenging opponent. And we also know that the longer restrictions are applied, the more fatigue creeps in and our guard can slip," Robertson said. 

"But I can't urge people enough that now is not the time for complacency."

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is expected to outline plans next week for a revamped alert level system, taking vaccination rates into consideration. 

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.