While daily case numbers stay high and Auckland gets ready to break a lockdown record, there is still reason for hope that the country can get on top of the Delta outbreak, Sam Sachdeva writes

Heading into Monday’s post-Cabinet press conference, an extension of Auckland’s time at Alert Level 4 was all but a formality.

But Jacinda Ardern’s piece of positive news – an in-principle decision to move the city down to Level 3 by 11.59pm next Tuesday – was at least somewhat surprising, as Cabinet could have been forgiven for erring on the side of caution and shying away from giving any timeframes for a move out of Level 4.

The Ministry of Health had earlier announced there were 33 new Covid-19 cases – the highest daily tally since the start of the month – while Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirmed there were still a handful of unlinked cases, which could indicate community transmission festering out of sight.

But there were several good scientific reasons, and one political factor, to justify the show of confidence in Auckland’s ability to drop down alert levels come next Tuesday.

For a start, the headline figure of 33 daily cases was less significant than the number that had not yet been epidemiologically linked to a prior case – just one. 

Bloomfield has already spoken about Delta’s high transmission rates within households, while on Sunday he noted day 12 testing of household contacts was likely to identify another 50 or so cases over time.

With only a handful of the unlinked cases of significant concern to public health officials, he also sounded confident one week would be sufficient time to “really finish the job off” through a combination of contact tracing and targeted testing in seven Auckland suburbs of concern.

“The important thing is that we find cases: we want to find cases and then we know we can isolate, test and prevent the ongoing spread, and that’s absolutely the focus for this next week.”

Compliance rates with Covid restrictions have been good for the most part since the pandemic began, the odd flagrant breach aside. But almost 18 months on since the team of five million first sheltered in place, lockdown fatigue is a very real risk.

For her part, Ardern confirmed Cabinet would not need a confirmed epidemiological link for all of those cases in order to move ahead with Level 3. Setting the bar at that level may have made a shift down all but impossible, compared with the heightened and targeted testing approach serving as a back-up.

If it was a marginal call, ministers may have been swayed by the unwelcome record Auckland is about to set.

The seven-day extension means the city will have spent at least 35 days in Level 4 before its putative move down next week – the longest any part of New Zealand has had under full lockdown conditions.

Compliance rates with Covid restrictions have been good for the most part since the pandemic began, the odd flagrant breach aside.

But almost 18 months on since the team of five million first sheltered in place, lockdown fatigue is a very real risk.

Without some light (in the form of a takeaway curry) at the end of the tunnel, it could be all too easy for Aucklanders’ resolve to flag, and Delta’s infectivity would quickly punish any dropping of the guard.

Suggestions that New Zealand’s strategy of perpetual lockdowns has failed are both premature and inaccurate.

There has been a clear flattening of the case curve as a result of Level 4, while both the Government and its scientific advisers have already stated lockdowns will give way to contact tracing and testing, along with other less dramatic health measures, as part of reopening to the world.

Hospitalisation stats show vaccine’s worth

A more reasonable question to ask is when exactly that switch will occur, and on that matter there is less clarity.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins last week suggested plans and timings would need to be reworked as a result of the Delta outbreak, only for Ardern to state nothing had changed.

There is also uncertainty over exactly what level of vaccination would be deemed satisfactory to drop some of the more stringent restrictions – although as both Bloomfield and Ardern noted, the disproportionate numbers of unvaccinated Kiwis among those hospitalised in the current outbreak should provide proof of concept for anyone who is still hesitant about getting their jabs.

As for those living outside Auckland, their stay in Level 2 was also extended until next Tuesday, Ardern saying it was too risky for the rest of the country to move to Level 1 conditions while the country’s largest city was in full lockdown.

But unlike Auckland, there is no in-principle decision for a move down at that point.

That may be in part because Cabinet is yet to fully consider what ‘Delta Level 1’ should look like, while it is possible ministers and officials could decide a 3/2 split also carries too much risk.

Such a call would bring further heartache for businesses unable to remain profitable under the shrunken venue capacities of Delta Level 2 – but that would wreak lesser havoc than any move back into full lockdown as a result of a premature exit.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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