Covid-19: Auckland’s passed its peak, but ‘caution’ needed in easing restrictions


Aucklanders will hear on Wednesday whether an easing of Covid-19 restrictions is on the cards, as health officials say the region is on the other side of its Omicron peak.

Cabinet met on Monday to review vaccine mandates, vaccine passports and traffic light settings, but no decisions will be announced until Wednesday afternoon.

New Zealand has been in ‘red’ since community transmission of Omicron was detected on January 23. Since then, Tāmaki Makaurau has copped the brunt of the outbreak, with nearly 210,000 cases and the vast majority of hospitalisations.

Officials say Auckland's Omicron outbreak appears to have peaked, but health experts say any easing of restrictions – such as a move through the traffic light settings, or doing away with vaccine passes – should be slow, and cautious. (File photo)

Ricky Wilson/Stuff

Officials say Auckland’s Omicron outbreak appears to have peaked, but health experts say any easing of restrictions – such as a move through the traffic light settings, or doing away with vaccine passes – should be slow, and cautious. (File photo)

However, even as Auckland’s cases appear to have peaked, experts say any relaxing of restrictions would need to be “cautious” and coupled with strengthening of other measures.

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Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker thought it would be reasonable to ease traffic light settings, but he said changes to controls would need to be done “cautiously” to avoid yo-yoing if and when cases flared up again.

Aotearoa’s traffic light settings were reviewed on Monday, and announcements will be made on Wednesday. (File photo)

Ricky Wilson/Stuff

Aotearoa’s traffic light settings were reviewed on Monday, and announcements will be made on Wednesday. (File photo)

Auckland’s cases appeared to have peaked and hospitalisations were “tracking down” in the region, but Covid-19 was “still everywhere”, he said.

Baker said “timing will be everything”, and any changes would need to be phased.

“It is far better to slowly ease selective restrictions, and keep the pandemic wave fairly low to avoid a rebound, which could be frustrating and dangerous.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Radio New Zealand vaccine mandates and passes were “no longer as necessary” as case numbers were coming down.

Professor Michael Baker wants boosters to be included in vaccine passes. (File photo)

Ross Giblin/Stuff

Professor Michael Baker wants boosters to be included in vaccine passes. (File photo)

Much of New Zealand was already vaccinated – or if they weren’t, may have caught Covid-19 already, she said.

Baker said instead of scrapping vaccine passes, these should be upgraded to require boosters “so they mean something”.

The two-dose pass was not relevant for Omicron, and could give a “false sense of security”, he said.

If passes accounted for boosters, which limited super-spreading, “it would be quite reasonable to start relaxing gathering limits”, he said.

Microbiologist Associate Professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles said it would be “foolish” to remove all restrictions, and hoped at the very least masks would remain.

“What we’ve seen overseas is that cases have peaked, so restrictions [and] masks have been abandoned, only for cases to start rising again.”

Covid-19 modeller Dr Dion O’Neale said a reduction in case numbers was an opportunity to relax some measures, “but you’d hope things would be strengthened in other ways”.

With the Omicron response phases, restrictions were relaxed as the situation became more dangerous – redefining close contacts, and reducing the isolation period, to enable people to carry on working as much as practicable.

When there were 20,000 new cases each day it was difficult to maintain a 10-day isolation period, but with 5000-10,000 daily cases it might be possible to reintroduce some of those earlier measures, he said.

O’Neale said removing vaccine passes as regions moved to orange would not necessarily directly increase risk, if there were other protective measures in place.

Officials could relax vaccine pass requirements, but tighten up mask rules in certain settings, including in workplaces, he said.

The biggest risk was the signal easing restrictions sent to people that the situation was much safer, when there were still thousands of cases being detected across Auckland and the country every day: “Five thousand or 10,000 cases a day is still a lot.”

He hoped additional measures, such as “strong expectations” about mask-wearing and increasing the frequency of testing, would be coupled with any easing of restrictions.



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