New Zealand has seven new virus cases – all related to the Auckland community cluster.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield have given their daily 1pm daily update. The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also addressed media on her way into the House this afternoon.

Bloomfield said two of the new cases are linked to churches and two are household contacts.

Eight people are in hospital and all are connected to the cluster.

Three are in a critical condition and in intensive care – including one at North Shore Hospital whose case is still under investigation. Genome sequencing has linked that person’s case to the Auckland cluster but officials still can’t map out the epidemiological link. All of the person’s household cases tested negative.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield revealed there are seven new cases of Covid-19 all linked to the Auckland cluster, with eight now in hospital. Video / Pool

A particular concern was the person wasn’t a known contact and the first time officials were made aware of the case was when the patient appeared in hospital.

Any case which couldn’t be epidemiological linked – where there are missing pieces in the puzzle about how the person was infected – was closely followed and those cases formed part of Cabinet’s advice yesterday, said Bloomfield.

There is one other patient in North Shore Hospital who is stable in isolation on a ward.

There are two patients in Auckland City Hospital, both are stable and in isolation on a ward. One patient has been discharged from hospital to the Jet Park quarantine facility in the past 24 hours.

There are four patients with Covid-19 in Middlemore Hospital. Two are stable and each of these is in isolation on a ward. Two are in ICU and are critical.

The country now has 129 active cases, 19 of which are in managed isolation or quarantine facilities.

The facilities are housing 160 people linked to the cluster which includes 89 people who have tested positive for Covid-19 as well as their household contacts.

There have been 2446 close contacts identified with 2390 contacted.

There were 4434 tests completed yesterday.

Bloomfield said he expected to see lower testing days over the weekend.

He said 1.8 million people had now downloaded the Covid Tracer app – 45 per cent of the population aged over 15.

Face mask update on Thursday

Hipkins said he will be setting out the rules for wearing masks on public transport on Thursday.

They’re still working through face mask requirements for children.

The Health Ministry didn’t agree with University of Otago professor Michael Baker that there didn’t need to be physical distancing on public transport if everyone wore masks, said Bloomfield.

While the country is at alert level 2 and higher, the Government is making it compulsory for people travelling on buses, planes, trains, ferries and even Ubers to wear face masks, the Prime Minister announced yesterday.

The move comes after several people became unwell from a bus journey and new research shows the benefits of people wearing face coverings.

Ardern also urged Aucklanders to wear face masks while they are out in public as she has been since the city moved into level 3 almost two weeks ago.

Bloomfield said today his ministry was working through advice from the World Health Organization on masks in schools for over 12s, but said it was particularly focused on countries where there was a lot of community transmission.

Hipkins said he had not seen evidence that making masks mandatory in schools would greatly reduce the risk but everything was continually being reviewed.

Testing fatigue

Hipkins said the Covid defence systems had “gone into overdrive” over the last two weeks, under extraordinary pressure, and all New Zealanders owe them a huge gratitude.

He personally thanked those involved in the dedicated workforce.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo / Mark Mitchell

This week they would shift to an “aggressively targeted approach” with a 70,000 test target over the next seven days, including border workers, MIQ guests and staff and some asymptomatic people in specific areas – in particular South Auckland.

There is work underway to deploy six mobile testing units to scope testing sites, such as churches, which would be active for two to three days at a time. They would be targeted for Maori and Pasifika communities, he said.

“It’s challenging to keep up this pace but it is doable.”

Hipkins said the Government had been working with Maori and Pasifika health providers and Bloomfield said the mobile testing units had Maori and Pasifika staff to help target and communicate with those communities.

DHBs were starting to report signs of testing fatigue amongst the public and Hipkins urged people to not relax now and continue to seek tests if needed.

He thanked all New Zealanders, but in particular Aucklanders, for their efforts to stamp out the virus.

“It’s hard but hugely appreciated.”

Bloomfield said he suspected the first wave of testing got to most people with symptoms but the next wave would focus on testing asymptomatic as well as those with cold and flu symptoms.

He said it was too early to read into the finding of the Hong Kong case which is believed to be the first confirmed case of re-infection of Covid-19

Moving out of lockdown

Auckland will move into level 2 like the rest of the country at midnight on Sunday except with stricter rules.

Ardern announced a four-day extension to Auckland’s lockdown yesterday.

Auckland workplaces and schools can open under normal level 2 conditions, but bars and restaurants will have to keep groups to no more than 10 people and abide by the “seated, separated, single server”. Dance floors at clubs will have to remain empty.

Auckland parties and church gatherings will also be restricted to 10 people, but funerals and tangi will be allowed up to 50 people.

The rest of the country will continue under normal level 2 rules, including the 100-person limit on gatherings.

These alert level settings will remain in place for at least one week, with Cabinet reviewing them on Sunday, September 6.

‘Part-time’ minister

National leader Judith Collins said Hipkins this morning was “essentially part-time” in his role as Health Minister and has not been providing National with enough information on the Covid-19 response.

When asked about it on her way into the House, Jacinda Ardern said: “I think it does a disservice to a minister who is working incredibly hard to describe them as anything other than hard working and with New Zealand’s interests at heart.”

Hipkins said at 1pm he completely disagreed with Collins’ comment.

Health Select Committee

In light of yesterday’s decision New Zealand First leader Winston Peters announced today that the New Zealand First Caucus agreed with the request of National’s health spokesman Dr Shane Reti to reconvene the Health Select Committee.

Hipkins said today it was up to the committee to decide whether they reconvened but he said they needed to keep in mind people did need time to do their jobs.

“The decision to delay the General Election and reconvene the House reinforces this government’s commitment to the crucial role parliament plays in holding the executive to account,” Peters said.

“It is therefore logical for the Health Select Committee to meet to canvass the advice of the Director-General of Health and other senior officials pertaining to the Alert Level decisions taken by Cabinet on 24 August.

“Given the economic and health consequences of the Cabinet’s decision it is appropriate for the accountability function to be performed while parliament is sitting,” said Mr Peters.

When asked about the issue before she went into the house, Ardern said “ultimately that’s a decision for the membership of the committee.”

Positive case at office block

It emerged today that an office worker in a downtown Auckland office block has tested positive for Covid-19.

Tenants in the Crombie Lockwood tower, in Queen St, have been sent an email confirming the news someone in their building had tested positive for the virus.

“Last night, one of our tenants was advised that a member of their staff from the 191 Queen Street office has tested positive for Covid-19,” it said.

“The staff member and all members of their household are now in quarantine under the care of [the] Auckland Regional Public Health.”

The email was sent to the Herald by a tenant in the building.

Tenants were told that the staffer had last been in the building last week on Monday, August 17. They only went into their office, tenants were told.

“ARPH has advised that the test results will determine how far back they need to contact-trace.”

The building is on an after hours-only access schedule.

“So even with an access card, this person wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere else than his/her office and floor.”

The email goes on to say that the person involved is regarded “full floor tenancy” so it would be very unlikely they would have been in contact with anyone else in the building.