After three new cases of Covid-19 were identified in the community, Auckland will move to Level 3 for three days from Sunday evening and the rest of New Zealand will move to Level 2 for the same period.

The situation will closely resemble the regional lockdown and alert levels changes during the August outbreak in Auckland. Police roadblocks will be set up at entrances and exits to the region from Monday morning.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said officials were tracing the contacts of the new cases. It was possible that the country might drop alert levels ahead of Wednesday evening, she said. It depended firstly on the results of ongoing genome sequencing seeking to determine whether the community cases were infected with one of the newer, more transmissible variants of Covid-19 and secondly on the results of widespread testing of the Papatoetoe High School community.

The decision to raise alert levels was made in part on the assumption that the cases were infected with a more transmissible variant, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said.

On Monday morning, officials at the Ministry of Health revealed that the cases were infected with B.1.1.7, the more transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom. There also wasn’t any genomic link to a case previously sequenced in managed isolation, meaning the source of infection remains unclear.

ESR, the national lab testing agency, is now comparing the virus genomes from the new cases to all those sequenced internationally in an attempt to get a better idea of the possible origins of the outbreak.

What the levels mean

Under Level 3, schools are shut and people must work from home if possible. Non-essential businesses move to contactless sales while supermarkets and pharmacies remain fully open for business. 

Travel in and out of Auckland is banned unless it is for an essential service, to return home, or for another exempted activity. Ardern said that a website to apply for travel exemptions would be set up by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment but that the process had improved since last used in August.

All gatherings are banned except wedding services, funerals and tangihanga, which are each limited to 10 attendees. More information about Level 3 can be found here.

Under Level 2, events are limited to 100 attendees. Schools and businesses remain open but social distancing is required in workplaces. More information about Level 2 can be found here.

Under both alert levels, people should remain distanced from one another, masks are required on public transport and they are recommended anywhere where social distancing is difficult. Anyone who has visited a location of concern (outlined below) should seek a test by calling Healthline and remain isolated until they return a negative result. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms, regardless of whether they visited a location of concern, should call Healthline and seek a test.

Under any alert level, it is recommended that people wash their hands frequently and use the NZ Covid Tracer app by enabling Bluetooth tracing and continuing to scan QR codes.

Ardern said financial support for businesses would be looked at if the alert levels were extended beyond three days. The vaccine rollout will not be affected by the restrictions, she added.

Papatoetoe family tests positive

The decision to escalate alert levels came after three members of a family in Papatoetoe tested positive for Covid-19, pandemic response minister Chris Hipkins announced on Sunday.

The people in question are a mother, daughter and father. The mother works at LSG Sky Chefs, a catering and laundry service based in Auckland Airport. Although she receives fortnightly Covid-19 tests, she and her daughter tested positive after seeking tests because they were symptomatic. The woman was meant to receive a test earlier in February as part of the regular schedule but was on leave and was skipped over.

Bloomfield said he would inquire further about how this had happened.

It is unclear where the woman may have been infected. Although the airport seems a likely source of infection, Hipkins said officials would seek a definitive answer as to where the infection came from and hadn’t yet ruled anything in or out.

Bloomfield said the woman was not expected to have been infectious when she was last at work, on February 5. The main cause of concern for further spread in the community is around the daughter’s school, Papatoetoe High School. The girl was last at school last Wednesday, February 10.A testing station will be set up at the school and it will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, Bloomfield said.

The father is self-employed as a tradesman and his potential contacts are also being traced.

Two of the cases also travelled to New Plymouth and visited several tourist locations in north Taranaki over Waitangi weekend, while potentially infectious but before they knew they had symptoms. A full list of locations of concern will be published on the Ministry of Health website. People are not required to isolate or seek a test in Taranaki or Auckland unless they have symptoms or were at one of the locations of concern during the relevant period.

The two cases travelled with two other people to New Plymouth and those contacts have not tested positive.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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