WELLINGTON • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern extended a lockdown in the country's biggest city yesterday in response to the first national coronavirus outbreak in months, sticking with a "go early, go hard" approach she said has proven effective.
Ms Ardern said genomic testing has shown that the latest outbreak is of a different strain from that in New Zealand's original outbreak earlier in the year, suggesting it is new to the country.
She said lockdown measures in Auckland, home to about 1.7 million people, and social distancing measures across the country that were imposed on Wednesday would remain in place for another 12 days.
The swift action followed the discovery on Tuesday of the country's first local Covid-19 cases in 102 days, in a family in Auckland. Officials have since identified a total of 29 cases, all linked to the same cluster.
"As we have said from the start, our overall Covid-19 strategy remains elimination," Ms Ardern said. "Together, we have got rid of Covid before. We have kept it out for 102 days, longer than any other country. We can do all of that again."
The leader is under pressure ahead of an upcoming general election, with the main opposition National Party accusing the government of failing to secure quarantine facilities and withholding information.
Ms Ardern said contact tracing and genomic testing had found no links with the current outbreak to the country's border entry points or managed quarantine facilities.
She said genome sequencing disproved the theory by some health experts that the virus could have been quietly moving through the community since the original outbreak.
"This suggests this is not a case of the virus being dormant or of a burning ember in our community," she said. "It appears to be new to New Zealand."
Health Minister Chris Hipkins said earlier that genome testing suggested the new virus outbreak had originated in Britain or Australia.
Ms Ardern cautioned that more cases were likely to emerge in the coming days, but said she was confident officials would successfully identify the "perimeter" of the cluster - if not its source - allowing them to isolate cases and remove restrictions.
The earliest case officials have identified to date is a worker at an Auckland-based cold store owned by US-based Americold Realty Trust, who became ill around July 31. Almost a dozen other infections have been directly linked to the facility.
Auckland's current level three restrictions requiring people to mostly stay at home, and level two restrictions for the rest of the country, are not as severe as the five-week level four shutdown imposed earlier in the year.
"I would characterise our approach as a 'short but precautionary hold' in an ongoing investigation that will stamp out the virus," Ms Ardern said of the current measures, which will last a total of 14 days, the known incubation period for the virus.
The opposition National Party has been pressuring Ms Ardern to delay the Sept 19 election, arguing that its inability to campaign due to restrictions gave her government an unfair advantage.
Ms Ardern said yesterday that she would make a decision in the next 48 hours.
Amid concerns that a fresh lockdown would come with a huge economic cost, Ms Ardern also announced the extension of a wage subsidy scheme and mortgage deferral programme to support businesses and protect jobs.
"Lifting restrictions now and seeing a potential explosion in cases is the worst thing we could do for Auckland and the New Zealand economy," she said.