PM Jacinda Ardern announces eased Alert Level restrictions, 29 new cases of Covid-19

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has promised a phased end to Covid restrictions in Auckland, beginning Tuesday night.

Ardern promised a three-step plan to transition "safely and carefully" over the coming weeks.

From midnight Tuesday, bubbles will be able to mix, but only outdoors and with some restrictions still in place.

"From 11:59pm Tuesday, Auckland will remain in Alert Level 3 but several key changes will occur. People will be able to connect with loved ones OUTDOORS with no more than two households at a time, up to a maximum of 10 people; early childhood education will return for all; and people can move around Auckland for recreation such as beach visits and hunting," Ardern said.

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 facemasks 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".

"Step three will bring back those higher risk settings. Hospitality will open – seated, separated and with a limit of 50; close contact businesses like hairdressers will also open with mask use and physical distancing; and gatherings will also then extend to 50," Ardern said.

"Cabinet will review each step weekly to ensure it's safe to move before confirming the next step. The wage subsidy will continue to be available.

Ardern said Delta had been more infectious. "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".

She said that was "ok" because the vaccines were now offering some protection. Cases still had to be found and controlled.

"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 approach of lifting 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 pleaded with Aucklanders to keep those meetings with other people outside.

She also urged them to wear masks, stay distanced from each other and stay away from other groups.

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.

Ardern said the re-opening 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.

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 two. Ardern said the recent cases outside Auckland's boundaries illustrated why that was important.

"We don't want to risk unncessary lockdowns."

Three more Raglan cases

Director of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said there were three further cases on top of the 29 announced today - the three 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.

Bloomfield emphasised that vaccines were the key to preventing overload in ICU facilities. Whilst 50 per cent of eligible New Zealanders were now fully vaccinated, only six per cent of those in the outbreak were vaccinated.

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 had also risen.

However, Ardern said in morning interviews she had ruled out moving back to level 4, but "we do need to take a very cautious approach".

She told RNZ strict lockdown measures had been needed at the start of the outbreak in August when vaccination rates were low. The outbreak still needed to be controlled "but we are transitioning".

"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."

She said there were other options than a simple change to level 2.

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 the cases found in the Waikato yesterday were linked to the Auckland outbreak, but would effectively be handled as a separate outbreak and would not affect the decision on Auckland.

Yesterday, Ardern announced Raglan, Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Ngāruawāhia, and Hamilton City in Waikato would be at level three for at least five days as officials tested for further spread in those areas, outside Auckland's boundaries.

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.

For more information visit covid19.govt.nz.

This article was first published on the NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.