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Shouldn’t Auckland be at Level 2.5?

Editorial

Relief at moves back down the pandemic alert levels announced yesterday is tempered by the remaining loose ends of this outbreak, from what is the 11th breach of our border defences since August last year by the tricky and changing virus that causes Covid-19.

The country and Auckland in particular will stay on tenterhooks over the next few days as results come in from targeted testing of an expanded number of case contacts. RNZ reported this morning that downtown Auckland was very quiet and about half the people moving about were wearing face masks.

Major question marks over the level of risk tolerance our health authorities and the Government are basing their decisions on are being raised by Auckland University Professor of Medicine Des Gorman — who has additionally called out the “political theatre” of Beehive announcements, claiming this adds to distress levels.

He describes yo-yoing levels of risk being accepted on our behalf; from the Ministry of Health's decision not to tell the Government on Saturday night that two Covid-19 cases had been reported in South Auckland — meaning it didn't have the opportunity to shut down the Big Gay Out and America's Cup racing on Sunday — to a Level 3 lockdown of Auckland (negligible risk tolerance) and now straight to Alert Level 2 while an outbreak is still likely to produce more cases and the source of it remains unknown (a modest level of risk).

Prof Gorman says this inconsistent approach seemed to be driven by optics more than science, and had left people confused: “What's the right thing to do depends entirely on how much risk you're prepared to live with. I don't think we've sorted that basic premise out.”

Prominent Otago University epidemiologists Nick Wilson and Michael Baker both say it would have been prudent to maintain travel restrictions in Auckland and mandate mask-wearing in indoor public places, so a move to what has become known as Alert Level 2.5. They have been calling for a more sophisticated approach to the alert level system. University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles believes Auckland should have stayed at Level 3 for two more days until all the test results were back.

Daily testing updates have been encouraging, though, and it was no coincidence that yesterday's political theatre involved a rosy rundown on this from the Director-General of Health, before handing back to the communicator-in-chief to deliver the alert level news.