Northern part of Te Tai Tokerau to enter alert level 3 lockdown over 'unlinked case' of COVID-19

The northern part of Te Tai Tokerau will enter alert level 3 lockdown at midnight over an "unlinked case" of COVID-19, Chris Hipkins has announced. 

The Ministry of Health has been unable to find an epidemiological link to a COVID-19 case in Taipa, about 20 kilometres northeast of Kaitaia in Northland, Hipkins told reporters during a last minute press conference on Tuesday. 

The boundary will run through the centre of Hokianga Harbour to the Mangamuka Junction on SH 1 to the Kaeo River Bridge on SH 10 and East Bay. Below that boundary line, the rest of Northland will remain at alert level 2.

Northland is currently at alert level 2. It shifted down from level 3 two weeks ago on October 19, following a lockdown sparked by two women who travelled from Auckland.  

The Ministry of Health registered one new case of COVID-19 in Northland on Tuesday, after reporting one on Monday, and two on Sunday. 

Hipkins said the new case of COVID-19 is a household contact of the case that was reported on Monday, and contact tracing teams have not been able to find an epidemiological or person-to-person link with any other cases in Northland. 

"Furthermore, these two cases are based in Taipa in the Far North, so are geographically quite separate from the other Northland cases, which are centred around Kaipara, Kaikohi and have locations of interest in Whangarei, Kaiwaka and Wellsford," he said. 

"The two new cases have not been near any of those locations, nor come into contact with any of the cases in the Northland outbreak, so it's unclear at this point how they could have possibly picked up the virus.

"This means that there is a strong possibility that there is one or more missing links in the chain of transmission and that means there could be undetected community transmission occurring right now in Northland. 

"So on the basis of public health advice, including from the Northland public health team, we've decided to move the northern part of Northland into alert level 3 from 11:59pm tonight, thorugh to midnight on Monday, while we do some extensive testing, contact tracing, in an attempt to find any missing link."

Northland has the second-lowest rate of vaccination in New Zealand, with 65 percent of the eligible population doubled-jabbed, compared to Auckland at 85 percent. Hipkins said the vaccination rate played into the decision. 

"Northland is about 17,120 doses short of reaching the 90 percent target. There is the capacity and the vaccines available to reach that target in Northland over the coming days if people simply come forward to be vaccinated," Hipkins said. 

"If they were sitting at 89 percent, maybe we'd be having a different conversation. Those are quite low vaccination rates... They've got the highest amount of catching up to do in the country to get to that 90 percent first dose mark, and we're also aware that we've got a lot of vulnerable people up there in Northland."

Māori vaccination rates are also trailing, with just 53 percent of the eligible Māori population fully vaccinated compared to 75 percent of the general population. The Government just announced a $23 million boost to community-led Māori vaccination campaigns.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is in Northland where she's been visiting vaccination clinics to try and drive up rates. In Kawakawa, her press conference was disrupted by anti-vaxxers

Hipkins said Ardern wasn't in an area of concern. 

"The Prime Minister wasn't in the area that we're moving into alert level 3. The Prime Minister does travel around the country, but the Prime Minister's very careful in terms of the nature of activities that she undertakes, so at this point, there's no additional risk there.

"The Prime Minister's not been in contact with any potential cases in those areas where there is concern at this point... We have to recognise that the Prime Minister still needs to be able to travel. Now, if the risk profile changes, then of course, we'll reassess that."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said there was "some debate" over whether Northland should be locked down. 

"The Director of Public Health and I settled on the fact that the origin of these cases is unknown... This is our standard thing, we are still trying to eliminate the virus outside of Auckland, and we felt it was appropriate."