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There are more Covid cases in Raglan – with household members of the first case confirmed overnight, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

And while a move out of level 3 for Auckland this week now seems highly doubtful – following the spread of Delta to Raglan and Hamilton – Ardern indicated this morning there could be the easing of some restrictions for the region, as experts study the granular detail of how cases are spreading.

She also signalled that New Zealand’s Covid elimination strategy is coming to an end – describing the move to vaccinate as many people as possible as a “transition” phase.

Ardern’s comments follow the announcement of 33 new cases yesterday – and, more significantly, the two new cases outside of Auckland, in Hamilton and Raglan. Those two cases are known to each other and Ardern confirmed this morning genome sequencing had linked the Hamilton case to the Auckland outbreak.

The additional Raglan household cases have been transferred to quarantine but there have been no positive cases attached to the Hamilton case or the case of the Auckland truckie who tested positive and was in Palmerston North.

Asked on RNZ if the Waikato cases meant a ruling out of level 2 for Auckland this week, Ardern said: “Movement there isn’t material to that decision.. for us it is still around the nature of the outbreak itself in Auckland.

“I know that people naturally look to singular alert level shifts. What we’ve been doing instead is just looking across the board at all of the restrictions. And looking at whether or not there are some options that are lower risk that we could ease just to support Aucklanders.”

She said details of Auckland’s road-map would be outlined at 4pm today and she did not want to pre-empt any Cabinet decisions ahead of that.

But there were other options than simply moving to level 2. “We want to give a bit of a sense of the longer term for Auckland.”

Experts could also study the granular details of what was causing the spread of the current cases – and whether they were attributable to certain restrictions “and therefore make a determination of what we consider high risk versus lower risk options around supporting Aucklanders”.

On the elimination strategy, the Prime Minister confirmed the country was now in a transition phase.

“I think we’ve always used elimination in the right way at the right time and you’ll hear me talk a little bit about this, this afternoon. But the reason – seven weeks ago at the beginning of this outbreak – that we said look we’re sticking with elimination, we’re using the lockdown was very much because we saw that we haven’t got enough people vaccinated yet to take an alternative strategy.”

A lot had changed with the number of people vaccinated, but the country was still in a transition period.

Just under 79 per cent of New Zealanders have received at least their first jab – experts say the country needs to be at least 90 per cent vaccinated to control the Delta virus.

“We are still vaccinating,” Ardern said. “We still don’t want a widespread, uncontrolled outbreak with exponential growth, because we still need to continue to vaccinate people. But what I’ll try and signal today is just what does it mean for the future for both Auckland and New Zealand during that transition period.”

Asked whether that meant the elimination strategy was at an end, she said: “We’re in a transition. So we are changing our strategy as we move. We still need to control this outbreak but we are transitioning.”

Waikato case linked to Auckland

Genome sequencing had linked the Hamilton case to the Auckland outbreak – Ardern said she would leave it to scientists to work out if there were enough clues in the sequencing to figure out what had happened.

Asked how the soft border in the Waikato would work, she told The AM Show that the hard border was needed in Auckland because the outbreak was widespread. But even border checks didn’t make that iron-cast – it was not a guarantee.

Level 2 in other places was because of the possibility of the virus getting out.

The soft border in the Waikato was “pragmatic”.

Asked if elimination would not ever happen in Auckland, Ardern said the road-map would be announced at 4pm for Auckland, “keeping in mind that … we do need to continue to be really cautious”.

Vaccines were making a difference to this outbreak but it’s about what happened in coming weeks, she said.

A short, sharp change in alert levels could be potentially dangerous.

Asked if it would be a “Sydney style” opening up at a particular vaccination target, Ardern said not necessarily – New Zealand had a different situation than New South Wales.

“Don’t expect these big lurches in alert level changes” – Auckland could expect smaller changes.

Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Newstalk ZB today that work was under way to find out how Delta had leaked into the Waikato and it was hoped whole genome sequencing would give answers.Officials should get that information sometime today, he said.

Robertson wasn’t ruling out unlawful activity – such as a Covid-positive person crossing the border without permission.

Critical week in outbreak

New Zealand may be facing its most crucial week of the Delta outbreak as a pair of rogue cases force Hamilton and several other Waikato centres to join Aucklanders in lockdown.

A parent of a baby in Auckland City Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit also tested positive for Covid-19, with movements in and out of the unit restricted.

All Auckland DHB staff in the unit are being tested, alongside babies and their families.

With another 33 cases reported in the community – half of them still unlinked – several experts say it’s unlikely Cabinet ministers will opt to move Auckland down to level 2 when they meet today.

Real doubt over Auckland level 2 move

Malaghan Institute director Graham Le Gros said he “really doubts” Auckland will come out of alert level 3 today.

Speaking to TVNZ’s Breakfast, he said: “The only way to get out of this mess now is to vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. It’s the only way the whole country and Auckland will get out of this.”

Le Gros called on anyone and everyone to get the jab.

He said the vaccination rate was still too low, unfortunately. WWe’ve got to get to that group of people who are afraid of the needle … we’ve got to get to them.”

That also included people who had been listening to too many “rumours” about the vaccine.

Le Gros acknowledged that the Government’s aim of a 90 per cent vaccination rate might be a little too high. At this point, he said he would like to see at least 85 per cent.

Le Gros said in the past, people had turned up to get vaccinated against other major diseases that affected the world – including polio – and had resulted in a 90 per cent vaccination rate because people understood they had a job to do. “This is the time to be grown up, go and do your job and it won’t hurt – promise.”

Epidemiologist Michael Baker agreed there was a very low chance of moving to level 2 this week, “unfortunately”.

He believes the alert level system needs fine-tuning – it was developed last year and much had changed since Delta.

Baker said everyone in New Zealand should expect the risk that the virus had seeded in their communities – so they should be following the level-2 restrictions.

More information was always needed before wider decisions could be made about the Waikato lockdown, he told The AM Show.

“We need to look very hard at the border around Auckland and the border between the North Island and the South Island.”

The soft border around Hamilton would not keep the virus in, he said. Contact tracers needed to quickly find the chain of transmission for the infected cases.

Inequality was a big issue in vaccination rates, he said. Only 30 per cent of Māori were double vaccinated.

He agreed 90 per cent vaccination was needed before getting out of level 3.

“Elimination is technically possible now but it would require a huge effort and it would be very tough on people.”

Adjusting our measures – by increasing jab rates – was the way out of the pandemic, Baker said.

Asked if elimination was over in practical terms, he said it was “looking like it.”

New Zealand had not managed to get out to the most marginalised people.

Waikato level 3 areas updated overnight

Waikato’s level 3 boundary has been confirmed overnight.

It includes Hamilton and entire Waikato District south of the Auckland lockdown border — including Raglan, Te Kauwhata, Ngaruawahia, and Huntly.

This extends beyond the area announced yesterday, and now extends south and east to areas like Tamahere, Eureka and Gordonton, and west to the Waikato West Coast.

Those areas will remain in level 3 for at least five days.

Ardern says there will be ‘spot checks’ at the border, but mainly, they’re relying on people to do the right thing.

Why case numbers could track upwards

A two-week time-lag from when Auckland shifted to a softer lockdown a fortnight ago also meant that any resulting effect on case numbers could become apparent over coming days.

“One scenario is that we do start to see a trend, where the numbers will bounce around but clearly track upwards,” Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said.

“The other is that they hover somewhere in the ballpark of the teens or 20s, which will indicate contact tracing teams are still able to keep a lid on things at level 3.”

If numbers did start to grow, Plank said they might keep rising gradually, or sharply, as seen in Australia.

“Victoria had quite a rapid increase in cases – from 20 to around 1500 in six weeks – all with similar vaccination rates, and restrictions similar to level 3.”

Another expert, University of Auckland computational biologist Dr David Welch, said a continuing rise in cases – particularly unlinked ones – already made it clear that level 3 wasn’t working to quash the outbreak.

“Modelling suggested that the move from level 4 to level 3 was a risk – we have not landed on the right side of that risk.”

Eliminating Covid-19 in the short term, he added, would require a move back to level 4 – something Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emphasised wouldn’t be considered by Cabinet today.

At a hastily-called media conference, she defended the level 3 step-down, which she said had been made on the advice of public health officials and still allowed efforts to stamp out the virus to continue.

She also pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest that the shift to level 3 had brought about a change in case numbers.

Hours earlier, it emerged two fresh community cases had been detected outside Auckland’s cordon – a person in Hamilton in their 40s and another in Raglan in their 50s – who so far hadn’t been linked either to each other, or the main outbreak.

Neither were vaccinated and both had moved around the region locally – prompting level 3 restrictions for Hamilton and Raglan, along with Huntly, Te Kauwhata and Ngaruawahia, for five days. The regions moved into alert level 3 at midnight Sunday.

While the Raglan case and their family were now in quarantine in Auckland, the Hamilton patient had been transferred to Waikato Hospital, where preparations were made to ensure there were no exposure events.

By yesterday afternoon, at least two Hamilton testing sites reached their capacity, with some people sent to other centres or asked to return today.

Waikato District Health Board was asking anyone symptomatic to get a test, and to follow guidance about each location of interest listed on Ministry of Health website.

“People who don’t meet the criteria, who aren’t symptomatic or have guidance to seek a test should call Healthline or their GP before they get a test.”

In Raglan, local ward councillor Lisa Thomson said there’d been an “amazing turnout” at a local pop-up testing station.

Earlier at the weekend, it was revealed an unvaccinated Auckland-based truck driver also tested positive for Covid-19, having visited a series of service stations in Waikato, Rangitikei and Manawatu.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield noted the driver was different from the Waikato cases, as they’d come from Auckland where undetected community spread wasn’t so much a concern.

Ardern also clarified the Waikato lockdowns were “discrete measures” taken separately to Auckland’s outbreak.

“So, we’ll be treating that distinct to what we’re dealing with in Auckland.”

Plank said it was concerning the cases had been infectious in the community for several days, and that there was no clear link to Auckland, meaning there could be more local cases to be found.

The events also showed that even with a relatively small number of cases in Auckland, he said, keeping the virus contained to one city was difficult.

“If the Auckland outbreak grows much larger, it will become even harder to prevent Covid spreading to other parts of New Zealand.”

Fellow Te Pūnaha Matatini modeller Shaun Hendy added that yesterday’s new cases made it very unlikely that Auckland could safely drop to level 2 – which could risk transmission elsewhere and force the rest of the country into level 3.

Because it appeared increasingly unlikely that Delta could be eliminated at level 3, Hendy said Aucklanders may have to stay at home until vaccination rates reached 90 per cent – something that could take weeks.

As at yesterday, just over half of eligible Auckland residents were fully vaccinated, with 84 per cent – or some 1.2 million people – having received their first dose.

On Saturday, more than 4,500 people in the region received their first jab, along with more than 17,00 receiving their second.

Nationally, nearly 80 per cent of Kiwis had now been given at least one shot – but there were still some 887,000 people who remained unvaccinated.

“Those who have not had a vaccine in New Zealand are currently in the minority but they are the vast majority of our cases,” Ardern said.

“That is because the vaccine works but also because the virus is literally finding unvaccinated people.”

She said that if vaccination rates in Hamilton and Raglan were 90 per cent or above, it was “highly unlikely” the Government would be imposing lockdowns.

“If the virus moves beyond the Auckland boundary and the places it moves to have low vaccination rates, today is an example of how will need to respond, so please get vaccinated today if you want to avoid level three in your community.”

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