New Zealand relaxes COVID-19 restrictions, except for Auckland. How much longer will the city have to wait?

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Alex James, University of Canterbury and Shaun Hendy

New Zealand’s government today announced that after seven days of no new community cases linked to the Auckland cluster, most of the country will return to almost normal life, at alert level 1, from midnight.

But restrictions in Auckland will remain in place until midnight on Wednesday, and the city will then move to alert level 2 for at least another two weeks. This means Aucklanders have to continue wearing masks on public transport, but will be allowed gatherings of up to 100 people.

The decision to keep Auckland under stronger restrictions is sensible. Our modelling suggests the current cluster could have a long tail and there may still be undetected cases in the city.

A return to level 1 is premature for Auckland, but the absence of new cases over the past week suggests the cluster is well contained.

Before the entire country can return to level 1, we should consider updating alert level guidelines to keep the requirement of mask wearing and restrictions on large gatherings in place for longer.

Could it still unravel?

Auckland’s move to level 2 shouldn’t unduly increase the risk of a flare-up. Our modelling suggests there will be a 50-50 chance of eliminating the virus by the end of the month, provided the cluster stays contained.

The last time New Zealand moved to level 1, back in June, was after 14 days of no new cases and only two cases in the full month the country remained at level 2. When we made that move we were 95% confident the virus had been eliminated.

Before lifting level 2 restrictions in Auckland, health officials will want to be sure the cluster won’t flare up again at level 1. If we maintain high rates of testing for another fortnight and continue to see no new cases in the community, we can consider level 1 for the city.

Read more:
Auckland’s rapid lockdown has given New Zealand a better chance of eliminating coronavirus – again

We may still see new cases, but there is a big difference between a new case in a family member who is already in isolation and a new case appearing out of the blue that has been infectious for two or three days.

Level 2 does pose a higher risk than Auckand’s current level 2.5, which limits social gatherings to fewer than ten people. The public should remain cautious, especially when it comes to large indoor gatherings.

Even though street protests in Auckland a week ago broke the ten-person limit, they posed a lower risk than indoor gatherings. The Black Lives Matter protests in the US don’t seem to have caused any significant increase in spread there. If there are new cases from the protests in Auckland, we would expect to detect those in the coming week.

So far, only four cases were detected outside Auckland and they were quickly quarantined. Nonetheless, our modelling suggests the chance of an undetected case in the South Island may still be between 5% and 10%. As case numbers fall, this gets lower, but with Air New Zealand’s NZ$50 domestic flights now on sale, it could rise again.

To be sure the disease hasn’t spread outside Auckland, anyone with even the mildest COVID-19 symptoms should be tested. This translates to roughly 10,000 tests each day across the country — but testing rates in the past week have only averaged about 7,000 per day, mostly in Auckland. People in other parts of the country need to be tested too.

Read more:
6 months after New Zealand’s first COVID-19 case, it’s time for a more strategic approach

Risk of new outbreaks

Level 1 is not without risk. Even with the increased testing both in the community and of front-line workers, especially in quarantine and isolation facilities, we’ve seen four separate border incursions. At level 1, there is a greater chance an incursion will result in a large outbreak.

The first breach at the border has never been traced but was first spotted in an Americold worker and resulted in the current outbreak, with more than 150 new cases. The second, separate infection in late August was picked up by a maintenance worker at an isolation facility in Auckland. It was caught early and led to no secondary cases.

The third was from a nurse who was infected at work at a quarantine facility. There have not been any secondary cases reported, which is a relief given the large number of close contacts at the nurse’s gym. We could have seen a superspreading event.

Read more:
Here’s the proof we need. Many more health workers than we ever thought are catching COVID-19 on the job

Then, over the weekend, we learned about a person who developed symptoms and tested positive several days after completing two weeks in managed isolation. This may have been due to an unusally long incubation period or from contact with other travellers in the quarantine facility.

This equates to a new incursion every three or four weeks. Our modelling shows that while most of these incursions will fizzle out on their own, occasionally one will lead to another large outbreak and possible lockdown, most likely in Auckland.

To stop these incursions becoming major outbreaks requires a significant change in public behaviour supported by an update in the alert level guidelines. The use of masks on public transport and restrictions on large gatherings, particularly indoors, may need to be kept in place in the longer term.

It’s almost impossible to know where or when our next outbreak will occur, but if we stay cautious and alert to this possibility, then we can avoid another lockdown.The Conversation

Alex James, Associate professor, University of Canterbury and Shaun Hendy, Professor of Physics

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Auckland’s rapid lockdown has given New Zealand a better chance of eliminating coronavirus – again

Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Michael Plank, University of Canterbury; Alex James, University of Canterbury; Nicholas Steyn, and Shaun Hendy

As Auckland prepares to relax restrictions on Monday, contact-tracing data show the rapid decision to place New Zealand’s largest city under alert level 3 lockdown has undoubtedly prevented an explosive outbreak of COVID-19.

Our model of COVID-19 spread in New Zealand shows the extension by an extra four days at level 3 until Monday has also increased our chances of eliminating community transmission of the virus by about 10%.

Auckland has been at alert level 3 since August 12, less than 24 hours after the first new community cases of COVID-19 in more than 100 days were reported.

Contact-tracing data show that before Auckland’s move to level 3, the reproduction number was between 2 and 3. This means that on average each new case passed the virus on to two or three other people.

If we hadn’t acted quickly, we would have had hundreds of new cases by now, and it would have become far more difficult to bring the outbreak under control.

New Zealand’s largest cluster

The Auckland outbreak is New Zealand’s largest and most complex cluster to date, with 159 people, including 85 who have tested positive and their household contacts.

We have seen transmission in workplaces, churches, public transport and shops, as well as within households.

It has affected Auckland’s Pacific population, who are at higher risk of severe outcomes from the disease. The risks associated with this cluster are higher than those in the first outbreak, reinforcing the need to take a precautionary approach.

Read more:
6 months after New Zealand’s first COVID-19 case, it’s time for a more strategic approach

The contact tracing system has been a significant help in containing this outbreak, with more contacts traced faster than earlier in the year. But contacts between strangers are harder to trace, and some could slip through the net.

The fact that the infection was passed between strangers on bus journeys shows how stealthily this virus can spread. It also emphasises how rapidly it can move around the city.

Melbourne attempted to contain its COVID-19 outbreak by locking down certain postcodes, but the virus was always one step ahead and ultimately this tactic didn’t work. The Auckland-wide lockdown has proven to be the right approach.

A worker hands out information to people entering a community testing centre.
Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Avoiding closed, crowded spaces

Although level 3 restrictions have been effective in preventing exponential growth of the cluster, active cases almost certainly remain in the community. These could easily spark a new outbreak if we relax too soon.

The extra time at level 3 will give us more confidence that the cluster is contained, but it is unlikely we will have completely eliminated the outbreak by Monday.

The Mt Roskill mini-cluster, which now has eight cases, shows we haven’t completely closed this outbreak down yet. But the fact this has now been genomically linked to the main Auckland cluster means it is unlikely to be part of a much bigger outbreak.

How we behave as we go into alert level 2 next week will be crucial in preventing a resurgence. If we can keep the reproduction number below 1, we will eventually eliminate the virus. But if the reproduction number goes above 1, there is a high chance the outbreak will flare up again.

Auckland’s alert level 3 has been successful in preventing rapid growth in the number of cases.
Author supplied, CC BY-SA

Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people and compulsory mask use on public transport will help. But the best way to prevent a resurgence of the virus at level 2 is if we all avoid the three Cs: closed spaces, crowded places and close contacts.

Read more:
Genome sequencing tells us the Auckland outbreak is a single cluster — except for one case

Likelihood of regional spread

So far the cluster has remained largely contained within Auckland. Restrictions on travel in and out of the city have certainly helped to stop the cluster from spreading to other regions.

From Monday, people will be able to travel to and from Auckland freely, and although we have reduced the number of cases in Auckland over the last two weeks, there is a risk of spreading COVID-19 around the country.

The virus could still pop up anywhere and it is essential all New Zealanders stick to level 2 rules, whether they live in Whangārei, Invercargill or anywhere in between.

We don’t necessarily have to get to zero new cases before lifting the level 3 restrictions. As we have seen before, case numbers bounce around from day to day. We may get zero or one cases one day, and four or five the next. What is more important is the type of cases we are seeing.

Last time we were at level 2, from May 14 to June 8, we had a handful of new cases but these were all acquired from a known source. If we get new cases with no apparent link to the cluster, or cases who have been in high-contact situations while potentially infectious, this will be a red flag. It would tell us that there could be many more cases we have missed.

But if most of our new cases are close contacts of existing cases, and ideally already in isolation, this is a good sign that the cluster has been successfully ringfenced.

What next

The criteria for moving to level 1 should be a high probability of elimination. Our previous modelling shows this requires a period of at least ten consecutive days with no new cases, along with widespread testing of anyone with COVID-19-like symptoms.

Once we reach this stage, we should review our level 1 settings. We need to find a way of enabling our economy and society to function while staying ready for the next outbreak. Regular testing of people staying and working in quarantine facilities is one part of this.

But as long as the global pandemic continues to rage, we can’t rely solely on our border — we all need to play our part. Mass masking, precautionary physical distancing and widespread testing at level 1 are low-cost interventions that give us a better chance of detecting an outbreak before it grows too big.

This will minimise the risk of another lockdown next time the virus appears in our community.The Conversation

Michael Plank, Professor in Mathematics, University of Canterbury; Alex James, Associate professor, University of Canterbury; Nicholas Steyn, Research assistant, and Shaun Hendy, Professor of Physics

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


After New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark announced a general election for 8 November, several “faith-based” political parties have said they will contest the poll, reports Ecumenical News International.

Still, one political observer has suggested the increased number of Christian parties will splinter the faith-based vote, and limit any chance of parliamentary success for them.

Raymond Miller, political studies professor at Auckland University, told a New Zealand church magazine earlier this year that the ambition of a host of Christian-based political parties “did not match reality”.

Miller said the formation of three Christian parties – the United Future Party, the Family Party and the Kiwi Party – would split the conservative Christian vote.

Report from the Christian Telegraph