Auckland entered Level 3 at noon today while the rest of the country moved to Level 2. How will the Government manage the logistics of a regional lockdown?
In response to the confirmation of four cases of Covid-19 in Auckland, of unknown origins and with no known connection to the border or overseas travel, New Zealand is trying something new: a regional lockdown.
When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern first announced the alert level system in March, she raised the possibility of it being applied regionally. Just two days later, however, she would announce a nationwide escalation to Level 4.
Newsroom has previously reported on the debate within Government over whether to move down from Level 4 regionally, as some regions hadn’t had cases of Covid-19 for many weeks while others were still reporting new, cluster-linked cases.
Cabinet papers proactively released by the Government show the various logistical challenges with moving alert levels regionally. This included the impact of the move on compliance with restrictions – officials in the National Crisis Management Centre (NCMC) argued it “may detract from the ‘all in this together’ narrative and compromise efforts at public acceptability for more stringent control measures”.
So, how might the regional lockdown in Auckland be enforced?
To begin with, here’s what we know about what the Government intends. Anyone in Auckland who doesn’t normally live there may head home. Otherwise, no one should leave the boundaries of the Super City unless they are on essential business – with essential having the same definition as the last time the country was in Level 3 and 4.
Likewise, no one should enter Auckland unless they are returning home or on essential business.
This is to ensure that anyone with the virus in Auckland doesn’t spread it to the rest of the country, where restrictions are lower. Even if the outbreak in Auckland is worse than hoped, the rest of the country could still scrape along at Level 2 if these rules are followed carefully.
The proactively released Cabinet paper, authored by NCMC officials, recommended that only a small number of people be allowed to cross between different alert levels.
Freight drivers, workers performing essential work, emergency staff, officials giving effect to court orders, foreign nationals leaving New Zealand, people returning from overseas and individuals with compassionate exemptions would be the only people allowed to travel both ways between alert levels.
In addition, people relocating a home or business could cross the boundaries, but only from a place with a lower alert level to a place with a higher one.
“No travel between these regions would be permitted for anyone with or displaying symptoms of Covid-19, or their close contacts,” the paper stated.
The NCMC Cabinet paper recommended that regional alert level changes be actioned on Civil Defence and Emergency Management boundaries, which map onto regional council borders. That has been the approach the Government has taken thus far by confining the Level 3 move to the boundaries of the Auckland Super City.
The paper noted that, if roadblocks were to be imposed to cut off travel between all regions, there were 84 road crossings or “control points” which would need to be staffed. Were each point to be manned 24/7 by a capable team, it would require 12 to 15 full-time staff per crossing or 1008 to 1260 staff nationwide.
However, with just Auckland moving up, the number of control points is far smaller. Police said on Wednesday that there would be nine points manned along the Auckland Super City boundaries.
“We will be stopping vehicles and questioning drivers, but as has been our approach through the COVID-19 response, our first focus will be on educating people and ensuring they are aware of the new restrictions,” Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said.
“Police will have a visibly higher presence across the region, with all three Tāmaki Makaurau Police District Commanders working together to respond the regional Alert Level 3. We will be visible around supermarkets and places where communities need the assurance of Police presence.”
Alongside the issues with compliance and social licence mentioned above, the paper also forecast difficulties with the logistics of imposing lockdowns along borders that are frequently crossed for commuting to work or school.
“The complexities of having different alert levels and the limits on resourcing needed to effectively enforce boundaries suggest that geographic differentiation […] should only be used for a small number of regions at any one time (i.e. most regions, or alternatively only a few regions, should be at Alert Level 3; it would be more difficult to implement such a ‘half-half’ approach); should be seen as a transition measure with the aim of getting all parts of the country at the same alert level; and would be best used in those areas where there are not significant issues of regular cross-boundary travel for work or school,” the paper stated.
“The boundary between Auckland and Waikato and the boundary between Wellington and Manawatu-Whanganui are the most challenging (but not impossible) in this respect.”
Nonetheless, with the decision to impose Level 3 in Auckland while keeping the rest of the country at Level 2, the Government has decided to attempt to face down that challenge.
Note: This article has been updated with the release of new information by police on Wednesday morning.