9 Oct 2021

Easing Auckland's restrictions 'a very risky strategy'- public health expert

6:44 am on 9 October 2021

A public health expert is frustrated the government relaxed alert level restrictions in Auckland, saying the country's vaccination rate did not warrant it.

Central Auckland on Wednesday 25 August 2021 on the eighth today of a Covid-19 lockdown.

Photo: RNZ / John Edens

Now, a case has spread into Northland prompting Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins to hold an unexpected briefing last night to announce that the region would move into alert level 3 from midnight.

The new restrictions will remain in place until 11.59pm Tuesday and will be reviewed at Cabinet on Monday.

University of Otago senior lecturer Lesley Gray said it was too soon for the government to relax some restrictions earlier this week.

"I've been really frustrated this week, with the government's decision on Monday to somehow move towards a loosened level 3 in the Auckland region.

"Loosening alert levels at a time when we frankly, do not have high enough vaccination rates full stop, seems to be a very risky strategy."

She was concerned that undetected community cases will continue to leak outside of the border.

"I'm really concerned at this point, I think the next seven to 10 days will be very telling.

"I worry that we will see spread, we're already seeing spread north, I think we will see spread south and we as a population should not really be prepared to accept this. We've done so well in the last 18 to 20 months."

She said the messaging from the government to do with loosened restrictions had been confusing.

"This week has been quite confusing for lots of people... I would urge communities, particularly in areas with lower vaccination rates, whatever the reason for those low vaccination rates, I would say to everybody, the population, we've just got to behave as if we're still in level 4.

"The ongoing potential impact and consequences for our most vulnerable communities at this time remains serious, with Delta being introduced in Northland at a time when restrictions were already being eased in Auckland, and vaccination rates needed to be higher to keep everyone protected."

Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker agreed telling Checkpoint the government has not been clear about what the next steps will be as the country transitions out of the elimination strategy.

"This week has really been quite poor for clarity and communication so I think the government really has to sort out where we're going."

He said one option is a regional approach which would mean a suppression policy could be used in Auckland, while the rest of the country and particularly the South Island could continue to strive to eliminate the virus.

The head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu said the introduction of Delta to Northland at a time when restrictions were being eased in Auckland and vaccination rates needed to be higher has serious consequences for vulnerable communities.

She said putting Northland into alert level 3 along with "accelerated testing and vaccination efforts" will help prevent Covid-19 from becoming established in the area.

"Getting vaccinated demonstrates our commitment to keeping each other safe, and this includes our most vulnerable. Please get vaccinated, please get tested, please follow the alert level rules, and above all, please reach out to others and help them do the same."

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