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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

TUESDAY, 25 AUGUST 2020

The Speaker took the Chair at 2 p.m.

Prayers.

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS

COVID-19—Re-emergence in Community

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister of Health): Thank you, Mr Speaker. It’s now 14 days since COVID-19 re-emerged in the community and the Government moved Auckland to alert level 3 and the rest of New Zealand to alert level 2. The events of the last two weeks have once again confirmed the value of going hard and going early. The latest outbreak has resulted in the largest single cluster of cases that we have seen in New Zealand in our response to COVID-19 to date. But, it could have been so much worse. So far, 108 cases, as at 10:30 this morning, have been linked to the cluster—with cases across multiple workplaces, churches, and public transport. Thanks to the efforts of everyone who’s observed the alert level rules, as well as the record levels of testing and outstanding work by public health contact tracers, we can be increasingly confident that we are containing this cluster. This is not a matter of luck; it’s a result of a lot of planning and a lot of hard work.

For example, in the last two weeks we’ve processed close to 200,000 tests, including more than 100,000 tests in Auckland alone. That gives us real confidence that the virus is not widespread in the community. Our contact tracing has also performed strongly—since 11 August, 2,446 close contacts have been identified, with 2,390 contacted and in isolation. And we’ve hit the gold standard target of 80 percent for contacting close contacts within 48 hours—in fact, from 16 to 22 August, 94 percent of close contacts were contacted within that time frame. This work, combined with the impact of level 3 restrictions in Auckland, has massively reduced the opportunity for the virus to spread. I want to thank, once again, everyone who has been tested, our public health staff, lab workers, and the public for following the alert level rules. Your collective efforts continue to save lives.

None of this is to say that we’re out of the woods yet. We’ll continue to see new cases reported from this cluster for a while yet. There are still three cases under investigations that have not yet been epidemiologically linked to the cluster, although one of them has so far been genomically linked. So, when Cabinet meet yesterday, we again took the precautionary approach and we decided to keep Auckland at alert level 3 until 11.59 p.m. on Sunday, 30 August. I acknowledge that this will not be welcome news for all, particularly for those small businesses that are most exposed by their reduction in trade, but, ultimately, the best health response is the best economic response. Throughout our response to COVID-19, we’ve used the latest evidence and the best advice available to us at the time. We’ve learnt and we’ve adapted as we’ve gone. That will again be the case as we transition down the alert levels. In Auckland we will ease our way back.

So, from midnight on Sunday, schools, hospitality, retail, and those entities that are able to operate at level 2 will reopen, but we will keep a limit on mass gatherings. That means that groups of no more than 10—with the exception of tangihanga and funerals, which will be allowed to go ahead with up to 50 people, just as we did the last time we stepped down to level 2 gradually. The rest of the country will maintain current alert level 2 settings. That means, outside of Auckland, gatherings such as church services and social events will continue to be limited to 100 people. These settings will be in place for one week, from Sunday, and will be reviewed before Sunday, 6 September. After 30 August, the checkpoints will go and interregional travel will again be possible. This brings the risk of Aucklanders who may be infected spreading the virus to other parts of the country, or visitors to Auckland picking up the virus and taking it home. That’s a key reason for keeping the entire country at alert level 2.

Cabinet, yesterday, also considered fresh advice on the use of masks and face coverings. As a result, wearing a mask on public and passenger transport will be the new normal for us at alert level 2 for the whole of the country. New Zealanders will need to wear masks on buses, trains, ferries, planes, taxis, and Ubers. This requirement will take effect from 11.59 p.m. on 30 August this year.

Can I end by acknowledging, once again, that the last few weeks have been difficult for many people, particularly those in Auckland. No one wanted to see COVID-19 re-emerge in the community, but we always knew that it was possible and that it could happen. We were ready for it with a record testing capacity and a strong contact tracing system. We continue to take a fact-based approach, and base our strategy on the view of medical and scientific experts. We know that the best way to protect our people and our economy is to stamp out this virus, and we are on track to do that again.

MIL OSI