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The latest Delta outbreak has forced a rethink about bold plans recently announced to reopen to the world, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins says.
Rising case numbers across the Tasman and abandonment of any elimination policy at a state level means any reopening of the travel bubble won't be happening anywhere in the "near future".
Wednesday delivered positive news for the Auckland-centered outbreak with just 15 new community cases there, down from 20 the day before.
It brought the outbreak total to 855 cases - 17 in Wellington and the rest in Auckland.
Lockdown cost currently $1b a week
Unlinked cases and those infected in the community, as opposed to from known contacts, continued at low levels - all signs current level 4 settings in Auckland were working.
But the lockdown did come with a cost - Deputy PM and Finance Minister Grant Robertson told the AM show a week in Alert level 4 in Auckland and other restrictions in the rest of the country is costing about $1 billion per week.
Businesses outside Auckland were still entitled to the wage subsidy if they could show that Auckland's alert level 4 or 3 was affecting their income - such as tourism operators.
But Auckland businesses wanted to know if they would also get help when Auckland moved down to alert level 2.
Robertson said they would take "an ongoing look" at how businesses were coping and would continue to adapt.
But New Zealand's businesses had been open more days in the past 18 months than almost anywhere in the world.
If Cabinet were to decide next week to move Auckland to alert level 3, that would mean another two weeks of the wage subsidy.
Asked about businesses that had threatened to withhold GST, he said if people were under pressure and stress Inland Revenue could make exceptions but he did not think the commissioner would look fondly on people withholding GST deliberately.
Regarding truck drivers outside the Auckland border who were struggling to get testing that would allow them to cross the border, he said "I know it is an inconvenience," he said.
"We want to be pragmatic...over the course of the next week we want people to get tested."
There would be flexibility while the system bedded in.
Truckies were not being stopped from crossing the border, he said.
There had been many hurdles in the pandemic and things could be tweaked as they arose.
"If we all work together on this I'm sure it's going to work out fine."
Talking about New Zealand's financial and economic situation, Robertson told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking that he was optimistic.
"The country has done remarkably well," he said.
"The New Zealand economy has been incredibly resilient."
He said the Government was aware people and businesses are "doing it tough".
Asked about extra vaccines, Roberston said more details will be given soon.
The regular Pfizer supply was still coming in, but he said we were "burning through them.
Asked about the mystery Covid positive cases still popping up in the community and whether those continued unlinked cases would therefore mean a delay in Auckland moving to alert level 3, Roberston said: "We take the advice of our health officials. I don't want to pre-empt that."
New locations of interest
Two new locations of interest have been released by the health ministry this morning.
• Mobil Walmsley Rd, 101 Walmsley Rd, Favona
• Pak'nSave Māngere, corner of Bader Drive and Orly Avenue, Māngere
A positive case or cases visited the Mobil petrol station on Walmsley Rd on Friday, August 27. The affected time is 11.59am to 12.15pm.
Pak'nSave Māngere is linked to a Covid case who was at the supermarket on Sunday, August 29, for an hour between 8pm to 9pm.
In both cases, the Ministry of Health is advising anyone who was there at the same time to monitor their health for Covid symptoms for 14 days after the day of exposure.
"If symptoms develop, get a test and stay at home until you get a negative test result and until 24 hours after symptoms resolve."
Otago University international health expert, Professor Philip Hill told Hosking this morning that the Delta Covid strain had changed things in terms of international travel.
"Delta's the most significant change yet," Hill said.
Adjustments to the vaccine might help, he said.
We just need to make sure that our game plan is actually meeting our goals and actually is countering the virus as is."
Referring to Singapore, Hill said theirs was a similar population to New Zealand.
Therefore, we should be looking to Singapore for ideas about how to handle a changing virus, he said.
However, even Singapore is starting to see problems.
Hill reiterated the need for the Government to have an adjustable plan in the ongoing battle against Covid-19.
Opening up to the world
Hipkins meanwhile said the outbreak had forced a "rethink" of plans announced at the start of August to start reopening the borders, starting with a trial this year of home isolation or shorter MIQ stays for selected travellers.
That was supposed to be followed by the phased resumption of quarantine-free travel from the first quarter of 2022.
Resources and staff were now devoted to the current outbreak, which meant plans for the trial had been pushed back but were still intended to take place by the end of the year, Hipkins said.
The wider reopening was still "a while away", Hipkins said, but given recent developments in Australia people should "not hold their breath" about travelling quarantine-free there anywhere in the "near future".
It followed comments in the House on Tuesday evening where Hipkins said Delta had changed their thinking, particularly around the risk profiles they were to apply to countries.
"In some of the risk protection measures that we've had in place previously, like pre-departure testing potentially three days before travel, in a Delta environment where someone can be picking it up and being infectious within 24 hours—some of those things actually do need to be looked at again.
"I think we will have to look again at some of that thinking around particularly the country-risk profiling, because I think Delta has changed the game."
Bloomfield said they had been keeping a close eye on how countries with high vaccination rates that had reopened had been faring.
The United Kingdom had been "instructive" in that with high vaccination coverage they were still seeing high numbers of cases but comparatively far fewer deaths compared to last winter. Similarly, Singapore, which has vaccination coverage, over 80 per cent, was experiencing similar results.
Asked about international travel as the world continues to fight the Delta strain, Robertson said this morning that "it's definitely not on ice."
"We're pressing on and it's all about people getting vaccinated...but it's not on ice."
Asked about a delay in opening the borders to the rest of the world, he said that was based on vaccinations.
"We're pressing on," he said, referring to the need for as many people as possible getting vaccinated.
Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said inevitably plans to reopen the borders would have to be pushed back due to staffing and resources.
"I think this outbreak has strained the system to the maximum.
"It has also made it more real for everyone in terms of the Delta risk. As long as people are coming in who could be infected with this virus there is the ability for it to seep through tiny cracks."
What could be defined as low-risk, meaning fully vaccinated people could travel there quarantine-free, would also need to be very closely looked at.
With Australia essentially ruling out any form of elimination strategy, Baker said that would not be a likely option in the medium term, unless arrangements could be made with states including Tasmania and Western Australia that remained committed to keeping out the virus.
Further abroad New Zealand could look to places like Taiwan, and even mainland China and Hong Kong, which were still committed to elimination, he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, speaking before he told the Parliamentary Health Select Committee, Covid modeller Rodney Jones called on the Government to boost resources for South Auckland, saying despite "extraordinary" work from the community it could remain the "ongoing frontline in the battle against Covid".
"We need to support them in these vital steps to restore elimination. What we need to take away from this experience is that delta thrives on inequality."
Te Pūnaha Matatini modeller Professor Shaun Hendy also called for more widespread use of rapid testing technology.
He also spoke to recent modelling from himself and his colleagues that showed level 4 restrictions in Auckland were "working about as well as level 4 last year", and were on track to eliminate the outbreak in the coming weeks "provided we stay at level 4".
They were still estimating the outbreak to reach about 1000 case numbers in total.
National Covid-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop said we were in a pretty good position but we could be doing better. His regret was New Zealand hadn't scaled up its response over the last six to nine months to deal with Delta.
Bishop told TVNZ that New Zealand should be using rapid testing and saliva testing and have boosted ICU capacity.
But Otago University associate professor James Ussher told TVNZ this morning he did not think there was a huge role for rapid antigen testing in New Zealand while it continued with its elimination strategy because they were not as reliable.
Rapid antigen tests detected a bit of the virus - a protein as opposed to the RNA genome detected in the molecular tests.
They were in a lateral flow format - like a pregnancy test - and mostly required a nasal nasopharyngeal swab or a self-collected nasal swab. "Unfortunately there aren't any good kits that work with saliva at present."
Ussher said the problem with these tests were they were not as sensitive for detecting Covid and would miss early infections. He did not see a huge role for them in NZ at the moment given it has zero tolerance for missing cases.
Bishop defend rapid antigen testing saying they had their place - not for diagnostic testing, but in regular testing. Because a result was given in 15 minutes, it could then be followed up with another test. "You do trade-off accuracy for speed of result."
Bishop said all parties seemed to agree that New Zealand had to re-open its borders - but the question was how to do that.
"The key is vaccination - it's all about vaccination."
Bishop said it was "scandalous" New Zealand hadn't already ordered the booster shots.
He said the reason the lockdown had to be so harsh this time was because the country's vaccination roll-out was so slow.
He said over the last year New Zealand did such a good job and then "we rested on our laurels".
"Our vaccination rates are low and that is a failure on the Government."
The mystery continues
Also on Wednesday Hipkins revealed the probe into how the deadly Delta strain of Covid-19 got into the community from the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility remained a mystery.
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield also rejected suggestions Middlemore staff had made a serious error in how they handled the treatment of a patient at the hospital who later tested positive to Covid.