Auckland moves to alert level 1 tomorrow night but experts say it's too soon to relax all restrictions and fear Kiwis' Covid-19 complacency risks infection spreading rapidly if another outbreak hits the community.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, too, warned Aucklanders against complacency, pleading for people to scan QR codes with their smartphones, stay home if they're unwell, and get tested if feeling even slightly sick.
Ardern told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking this morning that she had not politicised yesterday's press conference to announce Auckland's move to level 1.
She said she had merely answered reporters' questions about the campaign during the press conference in Christchurch.
The Labour leader rejected suggestions that her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had outplayed NZ's handling of the pandemic.
Ardern noted that Morrison was frequently asked why he was not following New Zealand's strategy.
Asked about National's plan to conduct an inquiry into Auckland Council if elected, Ardern said she did not think it was necessary.
"We have more broadly had some questions about whether the CCO structure was taking more power away from elected individuals."
Asked about her portrayal in UK TV satire Spitting Image, she said she would not call herself as a socialist.
"I wouldn't call myself Mary Poppins either," she laughed.
In a recent episode, she is portrayed as a socialist and as Mary Poppins.
She pointed out she was also shown decapitating a man using a sword.
Ardern said she would not call herself a murderer either.
Level 1 for Auckland from tomorrow night
Level 1, which Auckland will move to at 11.59pm tomorrow, means no limits on the sizes of gatherings and the removal of social distancing requirements in restaurants and bars.
Masks are not needed at level 1 but Ardern yesterday said people should feel free to wear them if it makes them feel safer.
Calls for masks on public transport to continue
Lesley Gray, a senior lecturer in Otago University's Department of Primary Health Care, told the Herald that mask-wearing on public transport should be required at all alert levels.
Jacqui Maguire, a registered clinical psychologist, also sounded concern over mask-wearing and gathering sizes not being enforceable at level 1.
Only about a quarter of Kiwis were scanning QR codes using the NZ Covid Tracer app, Ardern said yesterday, and the number of scans had halved to one million in the past week from a peak of two million.
Dr Andrew Chen, a research fellow at Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, the University of Auckland, has been observing that trend with worry.
"As Auckland enters level 1, we may see increased levels of mobility and will see the return of larger group gatherings.
"If Covid-19 returns to the community, these both increase the risk of the infection spreading quickly and in ways that may be difficult to predict."
Chen said all Kiwis had a role to play in protecting themselves and others — and one of the most important steps they could take was keeping track of their movements.
"We can't just start keeping records at the beginning of the next outbreak — we need records before it arrives.
"Using the NZ Covid Tracer app is one of the most effective ways to keep track of your records."
Meanwhile, moving Auckland to alert level 1 last night instead of tomorrow would have saved an estimated $28.5 million in economic losses, Treasury says.
New Zealand First is understood to have raised questions with the Prime Minister's Office on Friday about the possibility of easing restrictions in Auckland from 11.59pm last night.
Ardern said yesterday she did not consider calling a Cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss that possibility because Cabinet had previously agreed for the city to be in alert level 2 for two weeks — or one full incubation period.
She said Cabinet also wanted to look at the latest test results from the more recent cases associated with a chartered flight from Christchurch to Auckland on September 11; the last such case tested positive on September 23.
She said there was a high level of confidence that those cases, as well as the 179-case cluster, were both contained, confirming modelling by Te Pūnaha Matahini that there was a 95 per cent likelihood Covid-19 had been eliminated.
There had been no new cases in the cluster for 12 days, and only six community cases are still to recover.
Yesterday, there was one new case of Covid-19, but it was contained in managed isolation.
Ardern said indicators including building consents and card spending had been relatively high while restrictions in Auckland were in force, but acknowledged the economic pain for hospitality, retail, tourism and the arts in particular.
"When we quickly stamp this virus out, our economy can return to close to normal sooner."
Treasury estimated the economy was operating at between 90 and 94 per cent with Auckland at level 2, she said.
A spokesman from Treasury confirmed that amounted to about $100m a week, or $14.28m a day.
An Auckland bar owner who was forced to sell his home to keep his businesses afloat and pay staff says the move to alert level 1 can't come soon enough.
Mat Jorgensen, who owns Ding Dong Lounge and Infinity Nightclub, was forced to choose between his businesses and his home during the second lockdown.
"They were two pretty sh**** situations, the best one I thought of working out for me and my family was keep the bars," he said.
Ardern conceded yesterday that higher daily testing numbers in July could have detected the current outbreak earlier.
She said saliva testing, which is being touted as much cheaper and capable of returning a result within 15 minutes, could be a game-changer but it needed to be as reliable as the nasopharyngeal swab test.
Public health experts have said it could be useful in future outbreaks because of the quick turnaround compared with the current test, which can take days to come back.
Ardern praised Kiwis, and Aucklanders in particular, for their efforts in stamping out the virus once again.
"I know for many this one has felt harder, especially for Aucklanders," she said.
"Despite that, Aucklanders and New Zealanders stuck to the plan that has worked twice now and beat the virus again.
"Our team of five million, a little more battle-weary this time, did what our national teams do so often — we put our heads down and we got on with it."
- Additional reporting: Luke Kirkness