New Zealand’s Covid-19 elimination strategy is undergoing a “transition”, the prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said, marking the first time the government has signalled an imminent shift away from the ambitious approach that has largely kept the country free of the virus.
New Zealand has been struggling to stamp out an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant. Fifty new cases were reported over the weekend, including a truck driver who travelled to Taranaki, 360km from Auckland, while infectious. Lockdown restrictions were extended to areas south of the country’s largest city, following the emergence of new community cases in the Waikato region. There are 23 unlinked cases from the past fortnight, which epidemiologists fear could indicate undetected strains of transmission within the community.
Cabinet will decide later on Monday if Auckland, which has been in lockdown for seven weeks, will have its restrictions eased. On Sunday, Ardern promised to share a “road-map” for ending Auckland’s restrictions and indicated a return to level 4 – the highest setting – will not be part of that plan.
On Monday morning Ardern told RNZ: “Elimination was right for now, while we vaccinate and so we are still vaccinating, we’re in a transition, so we are changing our strategy as we move.”
“We still need to control this outbreak, but we are transitioning.”
Amid mounting pressure, Ardern has said her strategy was never to have zero cases, but to aggressively stamp out the virus.
She has said strict lockdowns will end once 90% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. Nearly 46% of the eligible population – 12 years and over – are fully vaccinated, and 76% have had at least one dose.
Ardern said the emergence of cases in the Waikato was not material to the lockdown decision for Auckland.
“For us it is still around the nature of the outbreak itself in Auckland. We do need to take a very cautious approach.”
Cabinet was looking “across the board at all of the restrictions … whether or not there are some options there that are lower risk that we could ease just to support Aucklanders at the same time,” Ardern said.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker said the number of unlinked cases could indicate undetected chains of transmission in the community and easing Auckland’s restrictions is looking less likely.
Baker told Newshub the new cases in Waikato were concerning but that there is chance to get on top of the spread: “There are obviously many chains of transmission we need to get on top of but I think alert level 3 with good contact tracing could be enough to stamp out cases in the Waikato, it depends of course how extensive that chain of transmission is.”
While an elimination strategy could still be employed, it would soon start to take a toll on people, he said.
“I think the system does need to be fine-tuned, I mean it did its job last year. But the virus has changed. We’ve got vaccination so it is a different environment now.”
Meanwhile, Ardern lambasted a group of up to 2,000 anti-lockdown protesters who gathered in Auckland on Saturday, despite level 3 restrictions that prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. Health experts fear the gathering could turn into a super-spreader event.
Ardern said the protest, led by Brian Tamaki of the controversial Destiny Church, was a “slap in the face” for Aucklanders who had been adhering to the rules.
At Sunday’s Covid-19 update, Ardern said the police response to the protest was an operational matter. “I do of course have a personal view on the protest itself; it was wrong, obviously it was illegal but also it was morally wrong.”