New Zealand Covid elimination strategy to be phased out, Ardern says

New Zealand’s elimination strategy will be phased out in favour of a new model that takes into account vaccination rates, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said, as she laid out a three-stage “road-map” to transition Auckland out of its lockdown.

“Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines,” Ardern said. “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 in everyday public health measures,” she said.

It is the first time the government has announced a shift away from the ambitious elimination strategy, that has largely kept the country free of the virus. Ardern said the strategy had served New Zealand well, but there was always going to be point of transition away from it.

“Vaccines will mean that in the future we can do things differently … but even then, our strategy remains: that while cases will continue, we want to control the virus, stamp out cases, and prevent hospitalisations, but with vaccines we have more options on how we do that,” Ardern said.

Fifty new cases were reported over the weekend, including a truck driver who travelled to Palmerston North, about 500km from Auckland, while infectious. Another 29 cases were reported on Monday, with all but one in Auckland, bringing total cases in the outbreak to 1,314. A newborn baby in the maternity ward at North Shore hospital was one of the latest cases.

Lockdown restrictions were extended to areas south of the country’s largest city at the weekend, following the emergence of new community cases in the Waikato region. There are 21 unlinked cases from the past fortnight, which epidemiologists fear could indicate undetected strains of transmission within the community.

Auckland, which has been in lockdown for seven weeks, will have its restrictions eased in three stages, Ardern said, with cabinet reviewing each step weekly to ensure it is safe to move.

From midnight Tuesday, Auckland will remain in alert level 3 but several key changes will occur. People will be able to connect with people outdoors, with no more than two households at a time and 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.

The second step will allow retail to reopen, with requirements for face masks and physical distancing. Public facilities such as pools and zoos can open and the number of people who can meet outdoors will increase to 25.

Step three will allow for hospitality to open – seated, separated and with a limit of 50; close contact businesses like hairdressers will also open with mask use and physical distancing; gatherings will also then extend to 50.

Amid mounting pressure, Ardern said earlier her strategy was never to have zero cases, but to aggressively stamp out the virus.

She has said strict lockdowns will end once 90% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. Just over 46% of the eligible population – 12 years and over – is fully vaccinated, and 76% has had at least one dose.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said on Monday morning, the number of unlinked cases could indicate undetected chains of transmission in the community and easing Auckland’s restrictions is looking less likely.

Baker told Newshub the new cases in Waikato were concerning but that there is chance to get on top of the spread: “There are obviously many chains of transmission we need to get on top of but I think alert level 3 with good contact tracing could be enough to stamp out cases in the Waikato, it depends of course how extensive that chain of transmission is.”

While an elimination strategy could still be employed, it would soon start to take a toll on people, he said.

“I think the system does need to be fine-tuned, I mean it did its job last year. But the virus has changed. We’ve got vaccination so it is a different environment now.”

On Sunday, Ardern lambasted a group of up to 2,000 anti-lockdown protesters who gathered in Auckland on Saturday, despite level 3 restrictions that prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people. Health experts fear the gathering could turn into a super-spreader event.

Ardern said the protest, led by Brian Tamaki of the controversial Destiny Church, was a “slap in the face” for Aucklanders who had been adhering to the rules.

At Sunday’s Covid-19 update, Ardern said the police response to the protest was an operational matter. “I do of course have a personal view on the protest itself; it was wrong, obviously it was illegal but also it was morally wrong.”

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