Covid-19 wrap: Restrictions ease for Auckland and Northland, boosters approved, traffic light system on the horizon

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that Cabinet agreed to loosen restrictions for Auckland and upper Northland this week, while 190 new cases were announced today and the deaths of two people who had Covid-19 are under investigation.

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Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi / Samuel Rillstone / Jean Bell / Pool Mark Mitchell NZME

Ardern said at the 4pm post-Cabinet press conference that last week’s in principle decision to move Auckland to alert level 3, step 2, has been confirmed by Cabinet.

Auckland will move to the new step from 11.59pm tomorrow, which means retail businesses and public facilities like libraries, museums and zoos can reopen.

Outdoor gathering limits increase to 25 people and the two-household restriction is removed.

“While we’re getting those rates higher still, we are easing into our reopening,” she said.

Ardern said that it’s hoped Auckland will reach 90 percent double-vaccination rates by the end of November, when the city will then change to the new traffic light framework.

A further 190 new community cases were reported in New Zealand today, with 182 in Auckland, seven in Waikato and one in Northland.

There are now 81 people in hospital with Covid-19.

Two deaths were reported today of people who were positive for Covid-19, but their causes of death will be determined by the Coroner.

One person in their late 60s died in Auckland City Hospital on Saturday. The patient was admitted to hospital on 23 October for a trauma incident and tested positive for Covid-19 on admission, the Ministry of Health said.

Another death was reported in a managed isolation facility this morning. In a statement the Ministry said the returnee arrived on 3 November and tested positive during a routine day three test.

The cause of that person’s death will be determined by the coroner, including whether it may have been Covid-19 related.

Vaccination rates were key in determining if Auckland could relax restrictions, Ardern said.

All three of Auckland’s DHBs hit the 90 percent milestone for first doses of vaccinations late yesterday.

To date, 89 percent of New Zealanders have had their first dose and 78 percent are fully vaccinated.

There were 14,280 vaccine doses administered yesterday, including 3272 first doses and 11,008 second doses.

Medsafe has also approved a booster dose of Pfizer vaccines for people aged over 18, at least six months after the second dose. The next step is for the technical advisory group to inform ministers about this, Ardern said.

She said there is a “strong expectation” that Auckland will move to the new system after a 29 November Cabinet meeting.

“Moving to the new framework at that time will mean certainty for Auckland. It will mean all businesses can be open and operate, it will mean we will manage Covid safely, but differently.”

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Checkpoint the push will now be on to meet that second dose target.

“We know that people now understand the importance of getting the second dose, we’re going to be working doubly hard to make sure that everybody over the next three weeks … comes forward.”

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

Excitement and uncertainty over stepping down

The ease in restrictions can’t come too soon for many in Auckland. The city marked day 83 of being in lockdown today.

Earlier, RNZ spoke to residents meeting in bubbles for picnics at Okahu Bay.

Anvil Banez, who cycled to the beach, was feeling confident about any potential easing of lockdown restrictions.

“It’s dragged on a lot. I think it would be really nice to get a sense of normalcy again. Maybe just going to the Westfield mall or something, do a bit of window shopping again, that definitely hasn’t been around for a while.”

Simon Fell said he felt the time was right to start easing restrictions.

“It’s a step forward, it’s going to help the local restaurant industry and things like that, I think it’s a good thing. Again, we’ve still got to be careful as long as we get over that 90 percent, get everyone vaccinated.”

Businesses also told RNZ they are eager to reopen.

Still, not everyone is overjoyed. National Māori Pandemic group co-leader and Māori health leader Dr Rawiri Jansen told Morning Report that the prospect of Covid-19 restrictions easing fills him with a sense of doom.

Others have worried the outbreak may get out of hand when restrictions ease and may lead up to 1000 new cases a day by Christmas.

Public health lecturer Collin Tukuitonga said it was not the right time to ease restrictions.

“The outbreak could explode and spin out of control,” he said.

Jacinda Ardern at a Vaccination Centre in Kawakawa

Jacinda Ardern at a Vaccination Centre in Kawakawa Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Planning for continued rise in cases

While so far the Delta outbreak has not gone much beyond Auckland, the Waikato and spots in Northland, it is almost certain to spread in coming months. Planning continues in many places so systems do not buckle when they are put under strain.

The Taranaki District Health Board has a Covid ‘surge’ plan in place that would enable it to cater for nine ventilated ICU patients and up to 60 in-patients.

And refrigerated containers are being hired, bought, and scoped out to store Covid-19 bodies across the country.

University of Auckland epidemiology professor Rod Jackson said he does not think our morgues are ready for waves of Covid deaths.

“Nothing in New Zealand is prepared for an outbreak of Covid, a major outbreak.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the morgues, hospitals, [or] primary care.”

And there are still concerns over what impact long Covid might have on people.

Tensions spilling over as outbreak continues

The stress of the worldwide pandemic and Delta’s surge in New Zealand is leading to heightened tensions both online and in the real world.

Disinformation Project lead Kate Hannah said terms like Nazism were being thrown around in a carefree manner.

“We’ve really witnessed a downgrading of social discourse – so an acceptability of really vulgar, obscene, denigrating, rude, misogynistic, racist terminology just being used.”

Last week a prominent member of the public service compared some of the country’s leading scientists to Nazi physician and war criminal Josef Mengele, and a National MP posted on Facebook: “Generations before us have fought the tyranny of socialism, now it’s our turn.”

Former West Coast Mayor Tony Kokshoorn also told Morning Report earlier he fears misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine is creating a rift in the community.

Brainbox Institute director and researcher Tom Barraclough said it is important to get perspective.

“People need to understand that what they’re seeing on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is not a representative picture of what everyone is saying or thinking.

“Social media isn’t like a window to look outside, it’s more like having someone bring you things they think you want to see. That’s crucial to understand when it comes to navigating what you see online.”

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