Auckland roadmap – restrictions eased in steps

Prime Minister

Kia ora koutou katoa

Cabinet met today to discuss the current alert level restrictions in Auckland and to confirm our plan for transitioning the city out of the current restrictions safely and carefully over the coming weeks.

I’ll come to the details of that roadmap shortly, but first let’s review the outbreak.

Right at the beginning we said Delta was a game changer, and it has proven to be so. It has been more infectious and more persistent than the previous variants of COVID we have faced.  What we have called a long tail, feels more like a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake.

Having said that, our alert levels and the actions of Aucklanders on behalf of all of us has made a huge difference in this outbreak. Early on level 4 meant that we were able to contain the spread of the outbreak geographically. The restrictions have also stopped what could have otherwise been exponential growth over a prolonged number of weeks.

And that sacrifice, carried mostly by Aucklanders, has given us the gift of time.

Time to get vaccinated.

At the beginning of this outbreak, we said we were adopting an approach of elimination while we vaccinated. That was the right choice, and the only choice.

That was because at that time, only 42 percent of Aucklanders had one dose and 25 percent were fully vaccinated.

In the 7 weeks since, those numbers are now 84 percent and 52 percent – effectively doubled.

So in people terms, that’s 387,642 more Aucklanders who are now fully vaccinated.

And we can see vaccines are playing an important role.

Only 3 percent of cases in this outbreak were fully vaccinated.

Modelling is also now telling us that while we’re still seeing cases, they are 50 percent less than what we could have seen without vaccinations.

In the future, vaccines will be able to make an even bigger difference. The won’t be the only tool we need, but they will be able to act as a form of individual armour, which means we won’t have to rely solely on restrictions like alert level three or four to be a barricade for us. 

But while we’re transitioning from our current strategy, into a new way of doing things, we’re not there yet.

We need more people fully vaccinated, across more suburbs, and more age groups.

As we do that we will be in a better position to safely lift those restrictions that are hardest to live with.

But in the meantime, the questions that Cabinet, working with the Director General and his team, has been asking are:

How do we continue to keep everyone safe, while looking to find ways to make everyday life a little easier?

How do we make the transition from tough restrictions at level three, to a place where public health measures sit alongside vaccines and life feels more normal.

Together with the public health team, we have designed a road map to help us do that.

It will take us being careful and methodical, and we all have a role to play.

Let me walk you through it.

Firstly, the health advice has been that to date, we have managed to largely control the outbreak. But as you can see, with this outbreak, and with delta, the return to zero is incredibly difficult. And our restrictions alone are not enough to achieve it quickly. In fact, for this outbreak it has become clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not get us to zero cases.

But that is ok.  Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things. We have more options. And there’s good cause for us to feel optimistic about the future.

But we cannot rush. 

That’s why we need to continue to contain and control the virus as much as possible while we make our transition from a place where we only use heavy restrictions, to a place where we use vaccines and every day public health measures.

And we need to keep using the tools we have. We need to vaccinate. Test. Find cases. Isolate them. And actively control any outbreak.  Now and in the future. This is a change in approach we were always going to make over time. This Delta outbreak has accelerated that transition.

So what does that mean for our next steps for Auckland?

Over the past week the public health team has been analysing each of the restrictions that we have, and assessing which of these have played a key role in controlling this outbreak.

That analysis has been used to identify those restrictions we believe can be eased while controlling the viruses to the best of our ability.

This phased approach is in three parts.  At each stage we will assess the impact of the previous phase before stepping down further.

Step one cabinet has already confirmed will come into place from tomorrow Tuesday 5 October at 11.59pm

Here, Auckland remains at level three but with several key changes.

The first: Aucklanders will be able to connect with family and loved ones again but only outside.

The science tells us Covid finds it hard to spread outdoors. So, from (midnight) Tuesday, Aucklanders will be able to meet another household outside, with a cap of no more than 10 people at any given time.

Children can have a play date in a park.  Friends can meet outside for a walk, a picnic, a beer. You can see slowly see people you have missed over these past seven weeks.

But please, it may sound like the outdoor part isn’t relevant – but it is in fact the most relevant part of all. Keep it outside. This part is absolutely fundamental to this change.

The natural ventilation provided by being outside makes it hard for the virus to spread, which makes outdoor gatherings the safest option.

I know one of the hardest things about lockdown, is not seeing the ones you love. But we have also seen that in this outbreak, families getting together has led to cases spreading. But by gathering outside we can balance both issues.

So please, be careful. Wear a mask. If you take them off to eat or drink, keep your distance. Give other groups a wide berth. But reach out and see people. I know it will help get people through.

But to be clear two households a maximum of 10 people outdoors.

The second change is the return of more children to early childhood education.

At Alert level 3, children have been going to early learning services where their parents or caregivers have to go to work and there are no options to care for them at home.

Our public health team believe that, with the right precautions in place including limiting the size of groups to 10 children within a bubble and strict infection, prevention and control, the risk posed by the return of ECE is low. Early Learning Services can welcome more children back from Wednesday. The exact number will depend on the number of bubbles of 10 children they can manage on their site. Parents, caregivers and teachers will also need to wear face coverings during pick-ups and drop-offs. Early Learning Services will contact parents in Auckland about the plan for their service and options for their children.

To ensure this is done as safely as possible though, we are encouraging Early learning teachers to get tested alongside other Aucklanders who have returned to work, and will look at options for more regular but less invasive surveillance testing going forward. This is an added precaution, and an acknowledgement that our children of that age cannot be vaccinated.

And the final change, is the ability to move around Auckland for recreation purposes.  You will be able to visit the beach, play bowls, sail, hunt, do outdoor cross fit or yoga classes. All must continue to comply with the rule of being outside, and keeping it to 10 people physically distanced.

This is the first phase is our gradual transition. Some may ask if this is a risk to the current outbreak. Here I think it’s important to note that the public health advice is that these changes are unlikely to contribute to a growth in the outbreak, as the activities that are being allowed are not considered high risk in our current situation. But, they will make a material difference in Aucklanders’ ability to maintain the restrictions that do make a difference. These are all things we have taken into account with this decision.

I’ll now set out the next two steps in our phased transition. We do not have a date for these steps, but we will make an assessment of our readiness to step into them on a weekly basis, starting next Monday. 

At step two, we predominately remain in level three with some further changes.

Retail will be able to open their doors again.

Once open, the usual measures for retail will apply, people will need to wear facemasks, and keep up physical distancing.

Public facilities will also be able to open again. That means places like libraries, museums, pools and zoos will be open.

At this step, we also intend to increase the number of people who can meet outdoors to 25, so your gatherings can get larger.

The third phase of our plan then brings back those higher risk settings. Here, hospitality (such as bars, cafes and restaurants) will be able to open, but with the precaution of seated, and separated, with a limit of 50 people. Close contact businesses like hairdressers will also be able to reopen at this stage, with the usual mask use, and with physical distancing.

Gatherings will also then extend to 50.

These are the three phases of our transition that our public health team have designed, and that has been approved by Cabinet.  Alongside these phases, the separate question of the reopening of schools has been considered.

Here, we will need to assess our progress as we lower restrictions, but the current public health advice, if we move carefully, is that schools will be able to return after the school holidays on 18 October with a range of precautions in place.

We will continue to review this preliminary advice, and we will signal in advance of the 18th of October the final decision. In the meantime, if your child is aged 12 and older and is not yet vaccinated we strongly urge you to use the coming two weeks to get them vaccinated before school reopens, to make the transition safer for everyone.

In total, this phasing amounts to a careful and methodical transition plan for Auckland.

As I said at the beginning, movement to each phase will be reviewed weekly.

We will need to assess the impact of each before making further alterations, but ongoing increases to Auckland’s vaccination rates will be essential to giving us confidence.

The easing of Alert Level 3 restrictions will not extend to the North West Waikato Alert Level 3 area. Current restrictions there are temporary measures while we get more information from the contact tracing and community testing now under way.

As Auckland moves through these three phases over the next few weeks, I can confirm that the Wage Subsidy will continue to be available on the current settings. Auckland is still for the most part at Alert Level 3 settings, and therefore the policy rationale for the continuation of the Wage Subsidy has been met.   As has previously been indicated the Resurgence Support Payment will be available in three weekly instalments so long as anywhere in the country is at Alert Level 2 settings.  We will update these policies as we transition to the new framework.

You may have noticed that these three phases don’t bring everything back online, like large scale events in Auckland.

That’s because at the conclusion of this three stage transition period we will likely move to a framework that then reflects a more vaccinated population, and the ability to use vaccine certificates as a tool in the near future to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, especially in crowded indoor settings.

This is our best pathway back to gatherings.

We are currently talking to our event sector, and hospitality around what this framework looks like. We will present the details on that plan next week. 

In the meantime, the rest of New Zealand needs to continue to support Auckland to do the heavy lifting for the rest of us.  This means we will be staying at Alert Level 2. The cases we have seen in the Waikato, and the driver who has visited Palmerston North are a very clear indication of the need for us to maintain that stance.  I know it is frustrating for communities that have not had a COVID case for a very long time. But it is important to remember that the reason there have not been cases is the careful and cautious approach we have taken. 

And, as we have throughout the pandemic we have re-assessed the settings at level two to see if there are any further ways to ease those settings, and maintain a cautious approach, as we believe there is. Currently we ask hospitality to be seated, and separated with 1 metre between customers. We then overlay a cap on the top. The view of our public health officials is that for the rest of New Zealand, we can remove this cap for hospitality. The seated and separated rule will provide the safety we need. This will also apply to other events spaces, and we’ll issue guidance on this. Because social gatherings do not use the seated and separated rule, the limit of 100 will continue to apply for these. 

But right now the single most important thing that people outside of Auckland can do if they want to see the return of large scale gatherings and events is to get vaccinated.  Or even better if you are vaccinated, support and encourage someone who isn’t to get along to a centre this weekend.

Tomorrow I’ll set out our plan for the final stages of our vaccination campaign and activities to drive our numbers up event higher.

On Thursday we will provide and update on the testing strategy going forward. At Cabinet today a report prepared by Professor David Murdoch from Otago University was presented. Professor Murdoch leads our testing advisory group. His work will form the basis of a new rigorous testing regime that will be central to our strategy to control the virus going forward.

To conclude vaccines will mean that in the future we can do things differently. And that change is within our sights.  But even then, our strategy remains – we want to control the virus, avoid cases and hospitalisations. But with vaccines we have more options on how we do that.

We will keep testing and isolating COVID when we find it. We will keep stamping it out through contact tracing. But the individual armour of the vaccine means we don’t all have to be at home while we do that work. 

But that does mean we need you to be vaccinated.

I have heard some people who are willing to be vaccinated, say that they are waiting for just a little longer till they make the choice. They may not be worried about the immediate side effects, but they want to see they long term health effects.

I want to give you the assurance you need, that the vaccine is safe. And encourage you to have further conversations with your trusted medical professional.

But please, do not wait. Maintaining control of COVID, and easing restrictions, does rely on the help of the vaccine.  It is already making a difference, but we need everyone to do their bit. Wherever you live.

This is not an Auckland problem, but rather a solution that only the team of 5 million can deliver on.  We need everyone to play their part.