New Zealand extends lockdown as Covid-19 outbreak widens

Lambton Quay is devoid of people on the first day of a lockdown in Wellington, New Zealand on Aug 18, 2021.
Lambton Quay is devoid of people on the first day of a lockdown in Wellington, New Zealand on Aug 18, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged New Zealanders on Friday (Aug 20) to adhere to her strategy to eliminate the fast-spreading Delta variant as she extended a strict lockdown amid a surge in infections.

Ms Ardern’s critics are questioning if she can repeat last year’s feat of almost stamping out Covid-19, as her government struggles to get the population vaccinated in the face of the more infectious Delta variant.

"We have been here before... we know the elimination strategy works," Ms Ardern told a news conference. "Cases rise and then they fall until we have none. It's tried and true... we just need to stick it out."

New Zealanders had been living virus-free and without curbs until Ms Ardern on Tuesday ordered a snap three-day nationwide lockdown and a seven-day shutdown in Auckland after discovering the country’s first case since February.

She extended the lockdown until midnight on Tuesday, saying that the outbreak had widened beyond the largest city Auckland to the capital Wellington.

"We just don't quite know the full scale of this Delta outbreak," Ms Ardern said at the news conference. 

Health authorities said 11 new cases were recorded on Friday, of which three cases were in Wellington.

The three in Wellington had recently travelled to Auckland and had visited locations that were identified as exposed to the outbreak, the health ministry said in a statement.

“We want the whole country on high alert right now,” Ms Ardern said.

Health chief Ashley Bloomfield warned that the lockdown in Auckland, the epicentre of the outbreak, may be extended further.

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.

But her government is now facing questions over a delayed vaccine roll-out, as well as rising costs in a country heavily reliant on an immigrant workforce.

Just about 19 per cent of the country’s 5.1 million population has been fully vaccinated so far, the slowest among nations under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.