Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington
New Zealand has recorded four new cases of Covid-19, after more than 100 days without any community transmission of the disease, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has announced at a late-night press conference.
Auckland was swiftly put under a three-day lockdown after four cases were confirmed in one family there. The family had not travelled overseas and the source of the infection is unknown.
This is significant because the country had not recorded transmission of the virus within the community in more than three months and daily life had returned to normal, except for strict border controls.
All 22 known cases of the virus before this announcement were among returning travellers quarantined in isolation facilities.
The latest case in New Zealand was diagnosed on Monday in a person in their 50s who lives in South Auckland; a second test on Tuesday also came back positive. The person had no history of overseas travel.
Three other family members of the six in the house have tested positive for coronavirus; the others have tested negative.
One of those diagnosed was a preschooler. The family’s contacts – and multiple workplaces – are being tested.
Ardern said “many questions remain” about the four new cases of Covid-19 diagnosed in the community, after 102 days of no such cases in the country.
She announced that as of 12pm on Wednesday, Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, would be placed in a restrictive phase of lockdown for three days.
Ardern said the most important thing was “tracing this case back to its original origin”. “We have not been able to determine the source of these cases,” she told reporters.
Those diagnosed had no known link to the managed isolation facilities for returning travellers, nor to the country’s borders, where all recorded cases of the virus have been registered.
Now, officials are asking Aucklanders to stay at home for at least three days – starting from noon on Wednesday as they attempt to trace the source of the infections. Under the so-called “level three” rules – one step down from the strictest level – Aucklanders should not go out unless they need to travel for work, or they are shopping or exercising.
Contact with others should be kept to a minimum, with all schools and childcare centres, and most businesses, closed. Supermarkets will remain open, and takeaway food and coffee will be available.
In the meantime, case numbers are expected to rise.
“We’re expecting to see other cases,” said Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director-general of health. “We want to find those other cases as soon as possible and identify or isolate any contacts.”
Since early June, when all remaining restrictions – except the strict border controls – eased on the country, New Zealanders have revelled in being one of the safest and most relaxed countries in the world when it came to Covid-19; so much so that Ardern and Bloomfield had begun to warn in recent weeks of “complacency”. The country would certainly see a community outbreak of the virus again, they said.
“I know that this information will be very difficult to receive,” Ardern said in the live broadcast news conference on Tuesday, when she announced the new cases.
“As a team we have also been here before,” she said. “We know that if we have a plan and stick to it we can work our way through difficult and unknown situations.”
The city-wide lockdown – the wider Auckland region is home to nearly 2 million of New Zealand’s 5 million people – was a “cautious” approach, said Ardern, but the three-day window gave officials time to gather the necessary information about the outbreak before she made longer-term decisions.
“Moving an entire city and New Zealand’s largest city into level-3 restriction is not something we’ve taken lightly,” she said. But she added it would not have been possible to effectively isolate one small part of the city.
In recent weeks, New Zealanders have watched in horror as cases surged once more in the Australian state of Victoria – a situation Ardern has referenced often when urging vigilance among the population. She and officials had been concerned with the number of people reportedly declining Covid-19 tests, and piecemeal uptake of the government’s contact-tracing app.
Now New Zealand is among the growing list of countries to record success in quelling the virus – only to see a resurgence.
Ardern “absolutely” understood New Zealand’s disappointment, she said. “That is a completely natural feeling. We have 102 days and it was very easy to feel like New Zealand was out of the woods.”
But, she added, New Zealand had “gone the longest” of any country in the world without community transmission. “Because we were the only ones, we always knew we had to plan.
“My request is not to be dispirited or disheartened,” she said.
Only those who are returning home are allowed to enter Auckland – and only those who live elsewhere are allowed to leave New Zealand’s largest city.
Ardern warned against panic-buying at Auckland supermarkets ahead of the Wednesday lockdown, but photos on social media showed large crowds and long queues following the news.
The restrictions on the rest of the country are less stringent but will be noticeable for a population that has grown accustomed to no coronavirus regulations. New Zealanders outside of Auckland should not gather in large numbers, should work from home if they can, and should wear masks if physical distancing is impossible.
New Zealand is less than six weeks from an election, with lawmakers crossing the country in whistlestop tours. Ardern – who has recently been in Auckland where the Covid-19 outbreak has been recorded – said she would remain in Wellington for the next three days.
She would not be drawn on how much longer the restrictions could last if the source of the Auckland infections was not found, or whether she was considering a delay to the election scheduled for 19 September. –The Guardian