14 Sep 2020

Auckland alert level: 'Run of zero days' needed for change, expert says

8:18 am on 14 September 2020

Today is the day the country will - once again - find out if it's moving up, down or staying at the same Covid-19 alert level.

Professor Nick Wilson

Otago University professor of public health Nick Wilson says it's too early for Auckland to move from alert level 2.5. Photo: RNZ Insight / John Gerritsen

Auckland, the epicentre of the second outbreak, has been at level 2.5 for two weeks now while the rest of the country sits down a notch at level 2.

What started as a sub-cluster in an Auckland church widened when it was revealed one member of the congregation had visited a grieving family.

Things were then complicated when it became apparent not all contacts in this sub-cluster had complied with public health requirements.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Health reported one case in managed isolation and another of a health worker in Auckland's Jet Park quarantine facility.

Otago University professor of public health Nick Wilson said Auckland is not ready to slide down the alert level scale, given the new cases.

"I think it would be pretty important to see a run of zero days and I think we're not really making proper use of masks in Auckland."

Professor Wilson said masks were the key to any long term containment of the novel coronavirus in Auckland and beyond.

He said the government should consider extending the requirement to wear them on public transport to all indoor spaces including supermarkets, workplaces and schools.

"I think that's the way to get very high levels of mask use and that would help speed progress. We're seeing progress with the slow decline in the number of cases but to really accelerate that progress we need to make best use of masks."

An Auckland child wearing a mask at school.

Professor Nick Wilson says Aucklanders should be following the example of this child and wearing masks in schools, workplaces and supermarkets. (file image) Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

Prof Wilson said high mask compliance on public transport around the country proved that if people are required to wear masks, they would do so.

The police are yet to issue any fines for people not wearing masks on public transport and have confirmed they're still taking an 'education and encouragement' approach.

Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said the case of a person attending an Auckland gym while infectious may have lowered the chances of moving down alert levels.

"Our chances were slim anyway just with having these sub-clusters coming up," she told First Up.

"We know that there are infectious people around and so moving alert levels would mean that we would be doing more things that would allow transmission to happen should those infectious people not be isolated."

However moving down alert levels is not necessarily about having zero cases but about the clusters being contained.

"The latest cluster came about because there were people who'd been believing the disinformation and weren't isolating when they were supposed to. We have to ensure all of the transmission from that has stopped and that anybody who may be infectious is isolating.

"Once that is done and the clusters are really well contained then we can start looking at going down the alert levels.

Wiles said alert levels can't drop throughout the rest of New Zealand until Auckland has its outbreak under tighter control, because travel is allowed between Auckland and the rest of the country.

She believes case numbers from the Mt Roskill Evangelical Fellowship Church sub-cluster could grow "quite significantly".

ACT leader David Seymour said government messaging around masks has been confusing and must be clarified.

"I think the lack of compliance comes down to the mixed messages about masking. The government needs to be clear: if masking is a way to avoid further restrictions the public will be on side but they have not had that clear message."

While Seymour said government messaging must be clearer there are others who want the health messaging to stop altogether.

Several thousand people rallied in Auckland's Aotea Square on Saturday in a protest against the government's use of Covid-19 restrictions. It was organised by Advance Party co-leaders, Jami Lee Ross and Billy Te Kahika.

Advance NZ co-leaders Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross, and a woman who was jailed for breaking isolation rules.

Billy Te Kahika, left, addresses the rally. Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

'Fear stoked by people who should know better'

Dr Siouxsie Wiles said it was disappointing how much disinformation is being spread "and that people believe it and then do things that are really risky".

Wiles said it would take a couple of weeks before we know whether there are any cases related to the protests and was critical of the political party leaders who fronted the rally.

"They're doing everything in their power to disrupt our team of five million and yet it's our team that's going to get us through this."

"It makes me angry when there are people who are in positions of power who are doing that kind of thing.

"Because people believe disinformation for all sorts of reasons, some of them really valid, but their fear is being stoked by people who should know better."

The protest was one of several to date Auckland mayor Phil Goff said flies in the face of the city's overall response to Covid-19.

"They are letting the side down. They are putting the rest of us at risk. It's a slap in the face for those of us that are doing the right thing to have a small minority of people that think somehow the rules don't apply to them. They're bulletproof and they don't have any part to play in stopping the spread of the virus."

Goff said the city will slide down the alert level scale if Aucklanders can stay the course.

Prof Wilson said he's hopeful the entire country can achieve elimination again.

"We're in a good position as an island nation; we can have good border control and get back to elimination. So these things are all temporary measures to speed us down controlling the Auckland outbreak and eliminating spread in Auckland."

The government is due to announce its alert level decision this afternoon.

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