WELLINGTON (REUTERS) - New Zealand’s city streets were largely deserted on Wednesday (Aug 18) as the country returned to life in lockdown for the first time in six months in a bid to halt any spread of the infectious Delta variant of Covid-19.
New Zealand had been virus-free and living without restrictions until Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a snap three-day nationwide lockdown on Tuesday after a single case, suspected to be Delta, was found in the largest city Auckland.
Ms Ardern on Wednesday confirmed the new case was the Delta variant and said there were now seven confirmed cases in total, all linked to the original infection, although modelling suggested case numbers could rise to 50 to 100.
"From the experience of what we’ve seen overseas, we are absolutely anticipating more cases," Ms Ardern told a media conference.
However, the move to lockdown would put the country "in a much less risky position", she added.
Genome sequencing tests on the first positive case recorded in Auckland on Tuesday was linked to the outbreak in New South Wales, Australia, Ms Ardern said in a news conference. One of the new cases is a fully vaccinated nurse from Auckland Hospital.
"We have always had our way of responding and it’s go hard and go early, because it’s much better than going light and long and ending up in prolonged lockdowns," she added.
The country will be in Level 4 lockdown, the highest alert level, for at least three days, while Auckland will remain in lockdown for seven days.
In the capital Wellington, few people ventured out in the city centre normally bustling with shoppers and office workers, while television footage showed similar scenes in Auckland.
Panic buying erupted after the lockdown announcement on Tuesday, with people stocking essentials at supermarkets despite repeated assurances from the government that there will be no shortage in supplies.
Businesses and schools scrambled to move online.
Ms Ardern has won praise for containing local transmission of Covid-19 via an elimination strategy, imposing tough lockdowns and shutting New Zealand’s international border in March 2020.
The last reported community case of Covid-19 in New Zealand was in February, with about 2,500 confirmed cases overall and 26 deaths, and citizens have been living without restrictions.
Ms Ardern's success helped her secure a second term in office, but her popularity is being dented by delays with a vaccine rollout, as well as rising costs in a country heavily reliant on an immigrant workforce.
Just over 21 per cent of the country’s five million people have been fully vaccinated so far, the slowest among OECD nations.
Opposition National Party leader Judith Collins said the country had little choice but to go into lockdown.
"If there's a failure, it is around getting vaccinations into the country and then getting them into people," she told state broadcaster 1News.
The government has suspended the vaccine programme to ensure safety measures are in place to handle the current outbreak.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the government will reinstate a wage subsidy from Friday if the country is still in lockdown.