Analysis: Three new cases in the Waikato and the spectre of more than a week of community transmission have derailed the Government’s likely decision to move Auckland to Level 3, Marc Daalder reports

With the Cabinet poised to move Auckland down to Level 3 after the country’s longest ever Level 4 lockdown, the discovery of three new cases just over the border in Level 2 Waikato has thrown everything into disarray.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seemed optimistic when speaking to reporters on Sunday about Auckland’s chances, describing the various ways in which the outbreak had been ring-fenced and undetected chains of transmission ruled out.

It was the proliferation of unlinked cases last week which prevented the Government from being able to move the Super City safely to Level 3. The intervening seven days have seen a strenuous effort to find the missing links, rule out undetected transmission and whittle down the number of unlinked cases.

While doing the morning media rounds on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson continued to tout the Government’s success in this mission, despite the three new cases. That could flag a bullishness about moving Auckland to Level 3, even if no decisions have yet been made about what happens to Waikato or the rest of the North Island.

At this stage, ministers will still need clarity about what happened to allow the transmission in the Waikato, how long it may have been going on and how far it could have spread. They’ll receive the answers to at least some of those questions when Cabinet meets at 12:30pm, and the rest of us might get a hint with the Ministry of Health’s 1pm statement.

From the descriptions provided thus far, it sounds like a man who was bailed from Auckland to his home in the Waikato on September 8 may have been infected that early on. This could mean the virus has been moving around in the Level 2 region for more than a week.

Of course, given the proximity of the community to Auckland, it is also possible that someone else in the area who traverses the Level 4 boundary for essential work is the index case and the remand prisoner’s family just happened to get caught up in the mix.

The hope is that the region is rural and isolated enough that any outbreak won’t be too widespread.

But whether the Cabinet will be willing to rely on that hope and on the ability of testing and tracing to corral a Delta outbreak at Level 2 remains to be seen. If the outbreak has been uncontrolled for more than a week, it poses a risk not only to the Waikato but also to Auckland if the city were to move down to Level 3, unless a strict border between the regions is maintained.

Contrary to the assertions of some, Level 3 is far more than just “Level 4 with takeaways”. It allows for vastly more activity to take place. Each new physical contact is, in turn, a risk for Covid-19 transmission.

In Auckland at Level 4, less than a fifth of the workforce is going to work. At Level 3, nearly half of employees are in the workplace. There are also joined-up bubbles, small funerals and weddings and a general sense of freedom that could lead to looser compliance with the rules.

On the other hand, the Cabinet will have to weigh up the fatigue of Aucklanders. Any extension to Level 4, particularly after several days of optimism from the Government that a step down the alert levels is in sight, could further erode the already fragile and fading spirits of those in the city.

Half-measures risk New Zealand embarking on the same path as New South Wales and Victoria, where Level 3-style restrictions will be in place for months and hundreds of new cases are being reported each day. And Aucklanders who right now are desperate for some reprieve could probably stomach a little longer in Level 4 if it avoids having to yo-yo back up or lessens the time that might be needed in Level 3.

But a Level 4 with an exhausted and less-compliant population is hardly better than Level 3 in the first place. If Level 4 is extended for Auckland (and if other parts of the country are moved up the alert levels), the Cabinet will have to seriously consider what types of financial and mental health support can be put in place for the unlucky third of the country stuck in New Zealand’s longest lockdown.

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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