Three things influencing lockdown verdict for three regions with quite different COVID-19 circumstances

COVID cases, testing volume and vaccination rates will likely influence the latest alert level decision and it's looking good for Northland, but not so good for Waikato, and Auckland - well, just look at the number of cases. 

"Let's just see," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told The AM Show on Monday when asked how promising it was looking for Northland to come out of alert level 3. 

Northland has been in lockdown since October 9 after two COVID-positive women travelled from Auckland with fraudulent travel exemptions. The women were uncooperative, and due to uncertainty about their travel history, the lockdown was extended last week. 

With no new cases in Northland and the two women in quarantine, there's a good chance the region could taste freedom. Testing in Northland was relatively high last week, with 12,462 swabs taken - double the previous week. 

"The thing of course we've been concerned about is whether there has been any spread there that we haven't been able to identify because the people that travelled there, we're just not 100 percent sure of their movements and it's good we haven't seen cases so far, and that's obviously informing our advice to the Government," Dr Bloomfield said. 

"There has been a lot of testing up there and thanks to those in Northland who have come to be tested. We've been doing the wastewater testing in the towns up there.

"There are still some unknowns and we're just trying to get the balance right in our advice and Cabinet will consider that this afternoon."

Northland's vaccination rate is lagging behind with 58 percent fully vaccinated, compared to Waikato's 64 percent. However, that might not save Waikato from another lockdown extension. 

Hamilton, Raglan, Te Kauwhata, Huntly, and Ngāruawāhia, have been under lockdown since October 4 after COVID-19 spread from two initial cases in Hamilton East and Raglan. Waipa, Ōtorohanga and Waitomo including Te Kuiti were later included. 

While vaccinations have ramped up in Waikato - 10,088 doses on Super Saturday - four new cases emerged in the region on Sunday, and two of them - in Hamilton and Kihikihi - were not immediately linked. The two other cases - in Hamilton and Raglan - were known contacts of existing cases.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured at the Beehive theatrette podium with COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pictured at the Beehive theatrette podium with COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It is possible that the Kihikihi case is the source of the wastewater detections in Te Awamutu, however this has not yet been confirmed," the Ministry of Health said in a statement on Sunday. 

Testing across Waikato waned a bit last week, with 17,244 swabs versus 24,630 the week before, but it's still much higher than most parts of the country. 

The highest number of tests were recorded across the Auckland region - the eye of the Delta outbreak - with more than 90,000 swabs last week in Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waitemata combined, representing about 60 percent of tests in New Zealand. 

Auckland is also close to reaching 90 percent of the eligible population having at least one dose of the vaccine. That means in three weeks, if those Aucklanders get their second dose, the city could finally have some freedoms after months in lockdown. 

"It is brilliant news for Auckland and it just goes to show that the hard work has been put in," Dr Bloomfield told The AM Show. 

"All the commentators are talking about 90 percent as a really important milestone, and I'll call it a milestone because we are not stopping there - every percentage point above 90 actually makes a difference."

But that's not all the Government will consider. 

"Of course, we're also looking at case numbers," Dr Bloomfield said. 

The Ministry of Health registered 51 new community cases on Sunday, 47 of them in Auckland. The number of daily cases in Auckland has remained high ever since the city shifted down to alert level 3. 

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said last week a large proportion of new cases were attributed to indoor social gatherings - not allowed under the step 1 rules, which only permit outdoor gatherings of two bubbles. 

Unless those case numbers start trending down, it's looking unlikely Aucklanders will be granted more freedoms. If Cabinet decides step 2 can go ahead, retail will return to the city, public facilities like libraries will be able to open again, and gatherings of up to 25 people outdoors would be permitted. 

Several experts have called for a level 4 'circuit breaker' lockdown for Auckland to try and break the growing number of cases, and Dr Bloomfield told Breakfast it's being "actively considered", but COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has previously ruled it out.