Auckland will end its five-week alert level 4 lockdown when it moves to level 3 for two weeks from 11.59 pm tomorrow night, with the rest of New Zealand to remain at level 2.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Cabinet's decision shortly after 4pm, saying the Government remains committed to its "zero-tolerance for cases" approach and urging Kiwis to follow the rules.
One part of the Waikato, with three new cases, would temporarily move into a "bespoke" set of restrictions.
Reacting to the news, Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank told the Herald it was a "calculated risk" moving Auckland to alert level 3, warning there was a very real chance of returning to level 4 within a matter of weeks.
Announcing Cabinet's decision alongside director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Ardern said level 4 had helped contain the outbreak in Auckland, and that level 3 still "provided the rules to keep up that containment".
The level 2 rules would be changed, however, to allow a maximum of 100 people to gather, including at hospitality venues, she said.
Ardern reminded Aucklanders that bubbles remained, but said "small" changes to the bubble were allowed to bring in someone who was in lockdown alone, or a caregiver.
People could not visit friends or neighbours, and children should not be allowed to play with each other.
Ardern said it was now known the Delta variant had been in the community for 7-10 days prior to the first case, and that level 4 "was the right move and has worked".
She was confident that cases would continue to be "stamped out where they are found" - through contact tracing and testing at level 3.
"We would want a level of comfort we had those cases well under control in a level 2 environment, so that's why we've said level three for at least two weeks," Ardern said.
It was not simply a matter of case numbers - with many of the households in this outbreak large. High vaccination rates would undoubtedly be a game-changer, Ardern said - "but the keyword there is high".
"To everyone, but especially Auckland, thank you for acting quickly and for persevering."
Level 3 doesn't mean 'opening up'
Ardern urged Auckland to remember level 3 was still a lockdown and said staying in level 4 for the five weeks had been important to give reassurance that the outbreak was under control.
Asked if she could still eliminate Delta under level 3, Ardern said level 3 was the level that was first used in other outbreaks. Level 4 was used instead this time because it was Delta, and after what had happened in Australia.
"Level 4 has done the job we needed it to do ... level 3 is not opening up," she said.
"Level 3 is still 'stamp it out'."
Ardern said it was important people did not mingle with others, contact was restricted, and measures such as mask use were taken.
Almost all cases in the last 14 days were known contacts of existing contacts, and authorities were confident there was no significant undetected transmission. For the most part, there was no widespread issues with workplaces, and most workplaces had strict protocols in place.
Asked about mystery cases, Ardern said there was no "large-scale undetected transmission" - new cases were largely easily able to be linked.
Bloomfield said he was "very confident" there was not a pool of undetected chains of transmissions, and the cases were now geographically confined around the south Auckland areas.
"Elimination is about stamp it out, and that's what level 3 is about. The difference is that this is level 3 with high and increasing rates of vaccination."
While there was no large-scale transmission, there was still work needed to ensure it was under control which was why level 3 was being used, rather than a lower level.
Ardern said masks, distancing and limited travel were all important "and must continue to be used". It was essential to keep bubbles tight "and all of these features are part of level 3".
Businesses could reopen if they did so safely. That included Covid tests for any staff with symptoms.
She urged those who could to work from home, and to keep young children at home.
Children should only be going to school if parents were essential workers. Ardern said children were "vectors of transmission" and so it was important to keep them in their bubbles.
Cabinet has also mandated mask use at high schools which were open at level 3. Everyone was encouraged to wear masks outside of their bubbles.
Events could still not happen, apart from a maximum of 10 for events such as weddings, funerals or tangihanga.
For over-65s in Auckland, Ardern said level 3 posed a higher level of risk. She urged those aged more than 65 to stay at home until they had been vaccinated. There were about 23,000 people aged over 65 in Auckland who were not yet vaccinated.
If possible, unvaccinated over 65s should use other people to do their shopping, but should still go to their health appointments.
"The best way to move in a level 3 environment safely is to be vaccinated," Ardern said.
Move a 'calculated risk' - expert
According to Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank, we were still seeing some spread between households and it was proving difficult to stamp out - although the majority of cases were under control and were household or known contacts.
"The success of level 3 will depend on people following the advice to not break their bubble and to keep their bubble tight because that is going to be what stops the virus from spreading," Plank said.
"There is a danger in level 3 that an increase in the number of people that were out and about could just make that spread between households all the more difficult to ring-fence.
"It relies to a large extent on people doing the right thing now."
Plank said people meeting up with friends and family members not in their bubble was our biggest risk.
"It's really important that people don't take this reduction in alert level as a signal danger has passed."
Plank said this was a really tough decision for the Government to make as five weeks was a long time for people to be in strict lockdown and people were tired.
"The Government is trying to balance a range of factors so it is a complex decision and a very tough call," he said before adding if there was a "sustained increase" in the number of cases or number of households affected by Delta then it was likely Auckland would move back into level 4.
"That would suggest that level 3 is not enough and a return to level 4 restrictions would be inevitable."
Plank said it was hard to say how long Auckland could be in level 3 as it would depend if people followed the rules.
"We haven't really had this alert level operating properly with Delta and it would depend on how quickly contact tracers could work.
"It could be that things are looking a lot better in two weeks' time and we do see a drop in alert levels or it could go the other way ... in which case we would look at tightening restrictions."
Ardern said Bloomfield was aiming for a vaccination mark of 90 per cent plus: "that's the range we want to see people aspiring to. That's the level where we might have fewer restrictions".
Bloomfield said current modelling was to hit the 80 per cent vaccination mark by early October, but he hoped it would get there more quickly.
Message for rule-breakers
On the boundaries around Auckland, Ardern reiterated the need to have a weekly test.
People who were travelling for personal reasons, with an exemption, now also needed a negative test up to 72 hours before they travelled.
Ardern pointed to the rule-breakers as a key reason why the rest of New Zealand was kept at level 2 during the lockdowns in Auckland.
"So long as we have rule-breakers, we need to keep the rest of New Zealand safe".
She said it was difficult to set up a complete block at Auckland borders, and people who were using their essential worker's passes to travel outside Auckland for reasons which were not legitimate meant there was a need to ongoing caution. It was impossible to set a complete block at that border.
University of Auckland's School of Population Health professor Rod Jackson said he hoped the ease in restrictions was enough to make those people who had been breaking the rules more compliant.
"Some people who had gone down to Hamilton to get takeout, it will hopefully stop them."
Jackson said level 3 was basically level 4 but with takeout: "When you leave home you should treat everyone as if they have Covid and as if you have Covid".
He said everything New Zealand was going to do between now and Christmas was "stop-gap measures" until enough of the population was vaccinated.
"You are either going to get vaccinated or the virus is going to get you."
Jackson said he didn't think any of the country should move down to alert level 1 until there was enough people were vaccinated.
"The Government has been cautious all the way through this pandemic ... we have to stamp out this virus otherwise it is going to be smouldering and we are going to be like New South Wales in and out of lockdown," Jackson said.
Ardern said five cases were unlinked for today, but three in one family and there was a "tentative" link.
The three cases are in a family linked to a remand prisoner who was at Auckland's Mt Eden Corrections Facility and was released on e-monitored bail to a house in the Firth of Thames on Wednesday, September 8 - when Auckland was still in alert level 4 lockdown.
Authorities had tested in and around the cases south of the border, including corrections, court and police staff and there were still only the three cases reported this morning, Ardern said.
More than 300 testing swabs had been taken in Kaiaua which was a small community.
Bloomfield said in addition to steps already in place, a section 70 notice for people around Mangatangi would effectively increase the border around Auckland.
It would require those who had visited or lived there since September 8 to isolate and monitor symptoms. That included the school and a marae.
People were asked to monitor locations of interest.
Ardern said it was a "bespoke" level 4 lockdown requirement around that area.
The reason a boundary approach and a section 70 were used was to ensure those who worked in that area but did not live there were also covered.
Ardern said "curve balls" had been thrown before in outbreaks, and a strong local approach was needed.
On the next fortnight, Bloomfield expected cases to "rumble along a bit, but they are expected to decline".
More cases were expected largely because of the sizes of the households involved.
Asked if the Government was offering more support for Auckland, which will have had at least seven weeks in fairly tight lockdowns, Ardern pointed to the three-weekly cycle of resurgence payments for businesses - rather than a one-off payment.
Wage subsidies would also continue to apply as long as Auckland was at level 3 or 4.
She said mental health assistance was available remotely.
STORY RESUMES AFTER BLOG
Update on Covid-infected prisoner
On the prisoner who had Covid-19 in Thames, Ardern said his movements were known because of GPS monitoring.
The bail conditions required them to be transported directly to the address. It was still being checked whether that direct route was taken by the person who transported him.
Ardern said the prisoner had been in a Covid-19-free environment (prison) prior to release on bail, so checks were being made on the transport to that prisoner's home.
Bloomfield said genomic sequencing was still coming, but it seemed likely the prisoner had infected the other members of his household.
It was likely the prisoner got it from somebody involved in transporting him to his home. Corrections staff had not transported him.
The prisoner was transported by three people - one of those was believed to have given it to the prisoner, and authorities were checking how long the prisoner "resided with" that other person.
Goff welcomes move, urges Aucklanders to get the jab
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says the government's decision will be a relief for Aucklanders who have done their bit to keep New Zealanders safe.
"Level 3 provides some limited extra freedoms to Aucklanders and will allow some businesses such as the construction industries to restart operations as well as click-and-collect from retail and hospitality industries," he says.
"However, we must not become complacent. As long as Covid-19 remains in the community we are still at high risk. We must stay the course and follow the alert level 3 rules that will help keep us safe.
"Following the guidelines, as well as getting vaccinated in large numbers, has helped reduce transmission and enabled us to move down alert levels. Moving further down the alert levels depends on us keeping up this effort.
"Keeping vaccination numbers high is critical. We are fast approaching 80 per cent of Aucklanders getting their first dose. We need to maintain this momentum and seek to vaccinate the maximum number of Aucklanders to reduce the chance of Covid being a risk to people's wellbeing.
"There are still around 300,000 Aucklanders needing to get their first vaccination and making strong inroads into providing the opportunity and encouragement for them to get vaccinated is the best insurance policy against having further lockdowns.
"If you have not yet been vaccinated, make it a priority this week. Please continue to self-isolate and get a test if you have any Covid-19 symptoms. Wear a mask when using public transport or accessing essential services and wash your hands frequently.
"I want to thank Aucklanders for the hard work they've put in so far. Continue to look out for one another. I know this has been a difficult time, but we can get through it if we keep working together."
Today's new cases
Earlier today, the Ministry of Health reported 22 new community cases.
Of these, 17 are linked to known cases, while five are unlinked. There are still 12 unlinked cases recorded from the past 14 days.
Of the five unlinked cases today; three are from one household; the other two are being interviewed.
Ten were already in quarantine when they were tested. The new cases bring the total number of active cases in the outbreak to 377. Sixteen people are in hospital, including four in ICU.
The majority of the new community cases reported today are located in Auckland, while three are those located in Whakatīwai.
Today is Auckland's 33rd day in lockdown since level 4 was declared at 11.59pm on August 17.
Six of yesterday's 24 Covid cases were not in isolation during the period they were infectious.
That meant there are currently 141 locations of interest.
There were 26,673 vaccines administered across the country yesterday, of those 14,145 were first doses and 12,528 were second shots.
This was less than a third of the peak vaccination period about three weeks ago, and the lowest daily total since August 15 - the Sunday just prior to the current outbreak being reported.