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Tensions are running high as Auckland transitions to more relaxed lockdown restrictions today for the first time in five weeks, after unprecedented scenes of protest at Parliament.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who visits Auckland this morning, believes the roughly 2000 people who marched in the capital yesterday don’t represent the majority of Kiwis, while one expert says the march was – regrettably – another opportunity to transmit the virus.
It comes as Auckland shifted to step 2 of alert level 3 as of midnight, enabling retail businesses and many public facilities to open from today.
Ardern has previously said retail was considered a low-risk area for transmission and coupled with Auckland’s growing vaccination levels, it was deemed acceptable to shift steps.
Aucklanders were already lining up outside at least one major shopping mall – nearly 24 hours before stores were due to open.
At least 70 people had been camped outside the Sylvia Park shopping complex in Mt Wellington since late Monday, despite the mall not due to open until 9am today.
It is understood they were there specifically for the opening of a new store, JD Sports Sylvia Park, which is advertising that the first 150 customers through its doors will get a gift pack worth $150.
JD Sports head Jason Lynch told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB they had a long queue of people waiting at midnight but it was worth it, he dubbed the opening “amazing” and a “massive success”.
He still hadn’t slept this morning.
Their product was in demand and dominated the market for leisurewear.
Their stores didn’t do click and collect during lockdown, he said.
Newmarket Business Association chief executive Mark Knoff-Thomas said retail would be ramping up and he was expecting shops tobe significantly busier than they had been over the past 12 weeks.
Deadly Ponies and Service Denim were both giving away vouchers to welcome people back into their shops. Over this lockdown the town centre had been down around $16m a week.
A few retailers and hospitality outlets had already closed and he expected more would close in the New Year because he didn’t think the Christmas “sugar rush” would be enough for them to survive, Knoff-Thomas told The AM Show today.
Risk of protest transmission
Covid-19 modeller Shaun Hendy agreed with Ardern, saying vaccinations levels trending towards 90 per cent double dosed indicated most Kiwis felt differently to yesterday’s protesters.
However, he warned such congregations could have caused further virus transmission.
“They are sizable enough that at these events, we could well have seen spread and there’s enough people there that we could get a significant number of infections, which could do real damage to our healthcare system.”
• LISTEN LIVE TO NEWSTALK ZB:
* 7.10am: Auckland Primary Principals’ Association president Stephen Lethbridge
* 7.15am: JD Sports head Jason Lynch
* 8.07am Labour’s Stuart Nash and National’s Mark Mitchell on Parliament protest
In moves touted as the strictest security measures enforced at Parliament, police and security staff lined the building’s entrance as protesters brought Wellington’s CBD to a standstill, marching in opposition to Covid restrictions.
Some attempted to get over the barricades towards Parliament but their tactics did not escalate further. Insults and tennis balls were hurled at media.
Ardern, whose appearance in Auckland is her first since lockdown, sent a message of thanks to those who were vaccinated and was confident yesterday’s protests were not an accurate reflection of the nation.
“I think [Kiwis] appreciate we are on a road to being able to open up more and have a bit more of that normality back. Yes, it’s been a tough road, but what we’ve done has been on behalf of everyone.”
Further protests of varying sizes were also held in Auckland, Invercargill, Balclutha, Tauranga and Whangārei. One police officer was bitten by a protester at Auckland’s northern border at Te Hana.
Auckland University programme director of the master of conflict and terrorism studies Chris Wilson told The AM Show there was “quite a lot of tension out there”, but he didn’t think we should over egg it. “I did see a number of commentators suggesting we were likely to experience something like the attack on January 6 – I don’t think we are at that stage yet for a number of reasons.”
Those reasons included that there were no politicians egging them on to use violence and there weren’t a number of militant groups among the protestors pushing people on and organising attacks.
While opposition parties may have criticised the government, it was a long long way from supporting any type of violent action, he said.
He said he was sure the Prime Minister and other politicians had adequate security for their assessment of the risks at the moment.
Threats against the press was something that was quite worrying and something media should keep an eye on and keep an eye on their own security.
University of Michigan public policy professor Javed Ali said Covid had introduced a whole new series of issues that had led to grievances for individuals and particular groups that has “fueled this populous anger”.
“He said the restrictions and mandates caused by Covid had added another layer of complexity.”
In the US, Covid had really shaped the extremist environment and he said hopefully it didn’t happen in New Zealand.
A total of 125 new community cases were announced yesterday – 117 in Auckland, two in Waikato and six in Northland (five of Northland’s cases were detailed on Monday).
Seventy-nine people were in hospital with the virus yesterday, with seven in intensive care or high dependency units. Just over half of all patients (40) were either unvaccinated or ineligible for vaccination.
Eighty-nine per cent of the eligible population had received one dose of the vaccine, and 79 per cent were fully vaccinated.
While it was expected further relaxation of restrictions would see a growth in cases, Hendy said retail businesses did have measures at their disposal to control any possible transmission like mask use and social distancing – both of which are necessary under step 2.
However, Hendy strongly advised against a move to step 3 – where hospitality could open with restrictions – partially due to the risk of transmission but also following Ardern’s forecast on Monday that Auckland could enter the new Covid management framework at the end of the month.
“[Step 3] is the really risky step and given we’re not far from the traffic light system where there might actually be tighter controls, it does seem like a bit of stretch to put that in place.”
University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker concurred and went a step further, saying schools shouldn’t reopen fully until vaccination was available to people under 12 years old.
“I just don’t think that would be compatible with trying to keep numbers down at all.”
Nevertheless, Baker was encouraged by indications case growth was becoming less exponential and more linear – highlighting the impact of higher vaccination levels.
As he has previously stated, Baker classified today’s step shift as a “trade-off” – a decision informed by public health, economic, social and political factors.
Clinical director Dr Vanessa Thornton at Middlemore Hospital, in South Auckland, says they are expecting a surge in hospitalisations.
“But we have been preparing for the surge,” she told the Breakfast show.
Staff had worked very hard during this lockdown period in preparation for this, she said.
Thornton said the fact the Counties Manukau DHB region reached the 90 per cent first dose coverage milestone a few days ago had been cause for celebration for the local community and for the hospital system as a result.
“The ones that aren’t vaccinated, they have increased severity which mainly means around their breathlessness…so that is something that’s really concerning.
“They are much sicker than the vaccinated patients,” she said.
They continued, therefore, to encourage people to get fully vaccinated as it meant they were far better off if they contracted the virus and also hugely helped to keep them out of hospital.
Thornton said in those really sick Covid patients they are seeing, it was really about the breathlessness.
“If people haven’t really experienced that sort of feeling before – it’s quite frightening the feeling of not being able to breathe.
“With people with any underlying conditions, then that makes the severity worse.”
There are currently 25 people with Covid-19 at Middlemore Hospital at the moment.
Thornton said they were preparing for predictions from epidemiologists that hospitalisations for Covid patients could reach up to 120 people.
Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt said they are still in a number of discussions with a number of suppliers – including Pfizer – on securing Covid treatment medication.
She told TVNZ’s Breakfast that Pharmac had secured agreements for five treatments and are carrying out negotiations for half a dozen other treatments with different suppliers.
“What we’re trying to do is building a portfolio of treatments for Covid-19.”
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