Aucklanders face another 4-8 weeks of restrictions, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has indicated.
Despite the first of a three-step plan to ease restrictions starting from 11.59pm on Tuesday, Bloomfield and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have emphasised Auckland is still in level 3.
Bloomfield said restrictions would ease in the region over four to eight weeks - meaning Aucklanders could be at level 3, albeit with some more freedoms, until the last week of November.
"I'm sure like everybody, particularly in Auckland, we're looking forward to a summer where we can enjoy freedoms and our ticket to that is vaccination, so the next four to eight weeks into early December is critical to get our vaccination rates up."
Ardern outlined the phased end to Covid restrictions in Auckland, beginning on Tuesday night.
Ardern said the three-step plan would allow NZ's biggest city to transition "safely and carefully" over the coming weeks.
The plan has been labelled as vague by Oppostion leader Judith Collins who says the Government has run out of ideas. Scientific experts have warned that the easing of restrictions risks more community transmission - and the likelihood of Delta spreading beyond Auckland.
They agree it will take weeks to get New Zealand to an acceptable vaccination level.
From midnight Tuesday, bubbles will be able to mix, but only outdoors, with no more than two households at a time up to a maximum of 10 people.
Early childhood education will also reopen, with limits of groups of 10 in a bubble and infection control processes.
People will also be permitted to move around Auckland for recreational activities such as hunting and going to the beach.
The second step will allow more retail to open, under a hybrid level 2.
"At step two retail will open their doors, with the usual measures of wearing face masks and keeping up physical distancing; public facilities such as pools and zoos will open; and the number of people who can meet outdoors will increase to 25," Ardern said.
Ardern did not give a date for when this step would begin.
The final step would be similar to what is currently known as "Delta level 2" - with hospitality venues open to up to 50 patrons, who must be seated and separated.
Close-contact businesses like hairdressers will also be allowed to open with mask use and physical distancing; and gathering limits will be extended to 50.
Cabinet will review each step weekly to ensure it's safe to move. The wage subsidy will continue to be available to qualifying businesses.
Speaking with The Project tonight, Ardern said the road map allows New Zealanders to stay safe.
Looking towards summer, Ardern said she and others are working hard to see a summer that's "a little normal".
She said there is no need to Aucklanders to start putting summer plans on hold.
"We have done well, this time that we are in at the moment is tough," she said.
But she reminded Aucklanders the future is bright if we work together and get vaccinated.
"Hang in there," she told the show's hosts, who are based in Auckland.
Ardern clarified on TVNZ's Seven Sharp tonight people were allowed to visit more than one household in a day but emphasised that it must be one at a time.
She said this was done to restrict transmission between households.
Asked about schools potentially reopening on October 18, Ardern said a prior indication would be given if officials were expecting to follow through with that plan. She said mask-wearing, testing and vaccination in schools was currently being explored.
Regarding step 3, Ardern didn't want to give dates or arbitrary vaccination levels. Instead, she said the state of the outbreak would be fundamental to that decision, more important than vaccination levels.
'Tail more like a tentacle'
Speaking at today's post-Cabinet press conference, Ardern said Delta had proved a tough adversary. "What we have called a long tail has been more like a tentacle that has been difficult to shake."
She said the restrictions so far had given the "gift of time to get vaccinated". The lockdowns at the start were "the only choice" given the low rates of vaccination in August.
Those rates had now rocketed, and modelling was showing that the number of cases we were seeing was 50 per cent less than we would have seen without vaccinations.
"While we are transitioning from our current strategy to a new way of doing things, we are not there yet." She said that would need more people to be fully vaccinated across more suburbs.
Ardern said the challenge was keeping people safe while making everyday life a bit easier.
She said the health advice to date had been able to control the outbreak, "but the return to zero has been extremely difficult".
"This was a change in approach we were always going to make over time. The Delta outbreak has meant we have had to accelerate that."
Ardern said the phased lifting of restrictions would be done carefully. The changes allowing households to meet outside were made because science had shown that Covid did not spread as much outdoors.
She said outdoor gatherings were the safest option, and urged Aucklanders to wear masks, stay distanced from each other and stay away from other groups.
"If you haven't got a good bladder, don't stay for long," Ardern said when asked if people meeting outside would be able to go indoors to use the toilet.
ECE rules; school reopening date
Ardern said limits of groups of 10 in a bubble at ECEs and infection control processes should be a low-risk scenario. Parents would have to wear masks for pick up and drop-offs, and ECE teachers were encouraged to agree to regular tests and vaccinations.
Parents could expect centres to let them know when they were able to re-open.
The Ministry of Education was working on measures to better protect children who were under 12, including looking at mask use and other measures.
Ardern said the reopening of schools was tentatively set for October 18, but that remained under review.
The final decision would be announced in advance of that date. She urged parents of over-12s to get children vaccinated prior to then.
Wage subsidy payments would continue while Auckland was at any stage of level 3. The boundaries around Auckland would remain in place, and would be regularly reviewed.
Ardern said the easing would not apply to the Waikato regions recently put into level 3. Those areas would stay at level 3 for at least the five days originally set.
The rest of New Zealand will remain at alert level 2. Ardern said the recent cases outside Auckland's boundaries illustrated why that was important.
"We don't want to risk unnecessary lockdowns."
However, level 2 settings would be eased - hospitality venues would still have to be seated and distanced, but a cap of 100 would no longer apply. The limit of 100 would continue to apply to other gatherings.
Ardern said she would set out a plan for the rest of the vaccination rollout tomorrow, and a testing plan would follow later in the week. She would also set out what a framework of vaccination passes would look like - and what types of events vaccinated people only would be able to attend.
Even with high vaccine rates, the goal would be to control the virus and stamp out outbreaks. However, the vaccines gave officials more options in how to do that.
"Maintaining control of Covid, easing restrictions, that relies on the vaccines."
Asked about the easing of restrictions given higher case numbers over the last few days, Ardern said the decision relied heavily on health advice.
Officials had looked at individual restrictions to see which had the least risk attached to them and could make people's lives easier.
They were comfortable in allowing two households, up to 10 people, to meet outside.
Elimination strategy 'served us well'
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the original advice was to maintain level 3 until today, and the easing should be done methodically, carefully and safely. "We looked carefully at the things in each step that would not increase the risk much at all."
Asked about the elimination strategy ending, Ardern said "it has served us incredibly well, and was the right thing to do".
"Over time we were always going to have to move to a place, and intended to move to a place, where our vaccines helped us."
She said the outbreak had accelerated that move away from elimination. While vaccination would not be enough on its own, it would mean authorities did not need to rely on the hardest of the restrictions.
Asked if there was a chance of re-imposing harder restrictions if cases ballooned, Ardern said that was why they had not yet set dates for easing restrictions in the future.
Asked if she was worried about the impact on groups that were still at low level of vaccination, such as Māori, Ardern said that was why some strict restrictions were still in place. It was to allow more time for those people to get vaccinated.
She would not set a level at which she would consider the Māori vaccination rate was high enough to ease more restrictions.
Asked if she was worried about compliance waning in Auckland, Ardern said the vast majority were not breaching rules, such as by going to protests. However, she said part of the equation was in assessing the ability of people to stick to the level 3 restrictions.
Ardern said she was relying on people to follow the rules - and stick to the level 3 rules other than the few eased restrictions.
"Don't feel tempted, if the weather turns bad, to switch over to meeting in your homes. Being outside is what makes the difference here."
On those coming out of Auckland as essential workers, Ardern said surveillance testing was not fail-safe and that was why the rest of New Zealand was staying at level 2.
On whether the hospital system could handle the eased restrictions, Bloomfield said there was modelling to show what case numbers hospitals could handle - and what else would be impacted by that. He said it was a matter of a trade-off between the two things.
"One reason we've said [restrictions] should be reviewed every week is to see what is the level of hospitalisations. It's why we will be monitoring it very carefully," Bloomfield said.
Bloomfield said the next four to eight weeks would be critical: that was the time frame within which health officials were aiming to have people double vaccinated.
Three more Raglan cases, MIQ absconder
Ardern said somebody had absconded from MIQ - but been recaptured in the last two hours.
She said she had limited information about the incident, but believed the person absconded from the Jet Park MIQ facility and was still with the police.
Dr Bloomfield also announced at this afternoon's press conference that there were three further cases on top of the 29 announced earlier - they were household members of the Raglan case.
He said he was expecting 25-30 more cases in the near future; the contacts of today's cases.
All 29 of today's cases were in Auckland or Waikato - and daily case numbers have risen since Auckland moved down from level 4 almost two weeks ago.
The number of unlinked cases has also risen.
Yesterday, Ardern announced Raglan, Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Ngāruawāhia, and Hamilton City in Waikato would be at level 3 for at least five days as officials tested for further spread in those areas, outside Auckland's boundaries.
Ardern today said anybody who had been in Raglan or Hamilton should check the locations of interest and get tested if they had any symptoms.
New cases in Auckland included a taxi driver who may have been infectious for two days while driving passengers, and a patient who went to Auckland City Hospital's emergency department yesterday and was admitted to intensive care for non-Covid reasons.
A baby has also tested positive at North Shore Hospital, and the parent of a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Auckland Hospital.
As of today, there are 15 epidemiologically linked subclusters - seven are active, one is contained and seven are dormant.
There are another 14 unlinked subclusters - five are active, one is contained and eight are dormant.
Thirty people are in hospital with Covid: three in North Shore, 13 in Middlemore, 13 in Auckland and one in Waikato.
Five patients are in intensive care or high dependency units.
Covid modeller Michael Plank on 'new normal'
Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said New Zealand was now entering a new phase of the pandemic, "where unfortunately community transmission of Covid-19 and ongoing measures to limit it are part of the new normal".
Vaccines would blunt the effects of the virus, but we had a long way to go to get the high vaccine coverage we needed, he said.
"Accepting that elimination isn't possible doesn't mean waving the white flag and letting it rip," he added.
"Left to its own devices, the virus would spread like wildfire through our unvaccinated and partially vaccinated population, and risk overwhelming our healthcare system.
"So until the number of people fully vaccinated is much higher, we have no alternative other than to suppress transmission as much as possible. The Government will need to pilot a very tricky route that avoids overflowing hospitals."
He described the road map for relaxing restrictions as a reasonable approach, starting with relatively low-risk outdoor gatherings, and progressively re-opening higher risk settings as the situation allowed.
"But it will be crucial to remain adaptable and responsive to changes in the number cases and the healthcare demand they will generate," he said.
"It may yet be necessary to adjust or tighten restrictions to prevent cases spiralling out of control."
Plank pointed out the Australian state of Victoria has gone from around 20 cases per day to 1500 in just six weeks, and there are currently 96 Covid-19 patients in ICU there.
"This could happen here and it would put immense pressure on our hospitals," he said.
"The Auckland boundary will remain in place for now. But if, as is likely, case numbers continue to grow, it will become progressively harder to keep the outbreak contained to Auckland.
"The rest of New Zealand should prepare for the inevitability of community transmission."
Regions that experienced outbreaks may need to be put under restrictions like those in Auckland, he said.
"While our vaccine rollout is still in progress, we remain extremely vulnerable to out-of-control outbreaks," he added.
"The Government needs to pull out every stop to maximise vaccine uptake, particularly in Māori and Pasifika populations and other groups where coverage is low."
Judith Collins attacks plan
National leader Judith Collins said the new plan on lifting restrictions was "nothing more than a vague wishlist".
"Today's announcement confirms what most New Zealanders – especially Aucklanders – have come to learn only too well over the past seven weeks of lockdown," Collins said.
"The Government is completely out of ideas. Elimination has failed but, while the Prime Minister says we've now moved to a 'transition' stage, the strategy is fundamentally unchanged. The Prime Minister's supposed road map to recovery is nothing more than a vague wishlist she tinkers with as dictated by the situation she reacts to. Where is the vision?
"The fact is that Jacinda Ardern has no answers to problems that she and her Government promised us were under control. The situation is now, very clearly, out of control and worsening every day. As a result of their incompetence and their incoherent supposed 'strategy', New Zealand is stuck in a lockdown limbo with no answers and no way out."
Phil Goff - vaccination key
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says that changes "will be welcomed by many", but vaccination was the key to more freedoms.
"None of us like being in a lockdown, but most recognise the risks that a major spread of the virus would cause while so many Aucklanders are still not fully vaccinated.
"You only need to look across the Tasman at Melbourne and Sydney to know that if the contagion spreads out of control, thousands would need to be hospitalised, hundreds may die, and the hospital system would struggle to cope. Studies have shown that about 95 per cent of people who received both doses of the vaccine were protected against getting seriously ill.
"What is really clear is that the fastest path out of lockdown is to get Aucklanders vaccinated. The priority has to be to encourage the more than 200,000 Aucklanders who have not yet got their first dose to do so. Removing restrictions depends on making inroads into those numbers."
Road map risky - Marama Davidson
Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson has criticised the Government's Covid road map, saying it "risks the safety of vulnerable communities and children".
"Elimination has protected thousands of lives in Aotearoa. We have to stay the course to keep everyone safe. Now is not the right time to change our approach, particularly when so many of our vulnerable communities are still at risk," Davidson said.
"We need a clear coordinated approach which prioritises our most vulnerable right now. We have seen the tragic consequences overseas when restrictions are eased too early.
"The Government's planned road map out of Covid-19 has serious risks for our vulnerable communities – including Māori and Pasifika, as well as people with underlying health conditions – who have disproportionately been impacted by lockdowns.
"We must continue on our elimination path until vaccines are approved for and rolled out to under-12s, and high coverage is achieved for all age groups, geographic areas, and population groups. This includes ensuring that Māori vaccine rates are high enough to protect whānau Māori."
She said the Government also needed to provide clear guidelines on what the road map means for immunocompromised communities so they are not forced into risking their health.
Business groups renew call for financial support
Auckland business groups are again urging the Government to act on calls to confirm financial support for Auckland during level 2 for qualifying businesses.
The Prime Minister today confirmed the wage subsidy would continue to be made available under the revised Level 3 restrictions, as well as the Resurgent Support Payment scheme.
But business groups have been agitating on behalf of thousands of small businesses for the subsidy to be continued under level 2, as it is deemed uneconomic for some hospitality businesses to open for gatherings of less than 50 people.
"The 'pathway for Auckland' announced today did not confirm this," said Tania Loveridge, head of advocacy and engagement at Heart of the City.
"Businesses need certainty and can't keep waiting to hear what help might be made available at the next announcement. The mechanism exists and is simple to execute – it just needs a government decision to do it."
She noted that Auckland has faced 29 weeks of restrictions so far.
"These effects are cumulative and the long tail of Covid-19 is hurting many businesses across a range of sectors. Thousands of business owners, their staff and suppliers face an uncertain future as they head into the Christmas season."