WELLINGTON: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern extended a lockdown in New Zealand's largest city on Friday (Aug 14), giving health authorities more time to trace and contain a strain of coronavirus previously unseen in the country.
Ardern said stay-at-home orders would remain in force across Auckland until Aug 26 in a bid to prevent a mystery outbreak from becoming a fully blown second wave.
Genomic tests indicated the latest infections were not the same strain of coronavirus recorded in New Zealand earlier this year.
"This suggests it's not a case of the virus being dormant, or of burning embers in our community, it appears to be new to New Zealand," Ardern said.
She added that tests were also unable to link the outbreak to any cases among quarantined travellers from overseas.
Since four people tested positive on Tuesday - the first cases of community transmission in 102 days - New Zealand has now detected a cluster of 30 virus cases.
Amid speculation that the virus could have been brought in via freight, Ardern admitted the source of the strain may never be found.
But she said it was likely the outbreak had been detected early and expressed hope that it could still be held back.
"We don't necessarily need to answer that question in order to contain and deal with this cluster effectively," she said.
Ardern praised the 1.5 million residents of New Zealand's biggest city as carrying a "heavy load" for the nation's well-being.
"As we have said from the start, our overall COVID-19 strategy remains elimination," Ardern said in a televised media conference.
"Together, we have got rid of COVID-19 before. We have kept it out for 102 days, longer than any other country. We can do all of that again."
Health Minister Chris Hipkins said earlier that two cases had been detected outside Auckland despite the lockdown.
But he played down fears that the failure to ring-fence infections meant the virus was destined to spread countrywide.
"The cases so far are connected, they are all part of one Auckland-based cluster, that's good news," he said.
Ardern cautioned that more cases were likely 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 authorities have identified to date is a worker at an Auckland-based cool store owned US-based Americold Realty Trust, who became ill around Jul 31. Almost a dozen other infections have been directly linked to the facility.
The current Level 3 restrictions in Auckland requiring people to mostly remain at home, and Level 2 restrictions for the rest of the country, are not as severe as the five-week Level 4 shutdown she 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," Ardern said of the current measures, which will last a total of 14 days, the known incubation period for the virus.
The prospect of new wave of infections has rattled New Zealanders, who have come to regard the remote South Pacific nation as a transmission-free haven over the past three months.
Wellington resident Barbara Pond described the situation as "heartbreaking".
"I'm so sick of hearing about COVID," she said.
"We worked so hard to get rid of it and now every time you turn around it's COVID, COVID, COVID."
National health director-general Ashley Bloomfield acknowledged feelings were running high but urged the public not to take out their frustrations on frontline health workers.
"We've had reports of healthcare workers, who are doing their best to provide testing for people, being verbally abused and even attacked," he said.
"This is completely unacceptable," he added, declining to provide further details.
New Zealand is following the same strategy that helped contain the virus after a seven-week lockdown earlier this year - isolating positive cases, contact tracing and extensive testing.
Ardern said swabs had been taken from 50,000 people in the past two days.
The government is making testing mandatory for frontline workers at ports and isolation facilities after reports that most staff at Auckland airport had never been checked for the virus.
Hipkins denied the government had failed to secure the border - regarded as the area most vulnerable to COVID-19's return - but conceded: "I'd have liked more tests (there) earlier."
ECONOMY AND ELECTION WORRIES
The opposition National Party has been pressuring Ardern to delay the Sep 19 election, arguing their inability to campaign because of restrictions gave her government an unfair advantage. Ardern said on Friday she would make a decision in the next 48 hours.
New Zealanders celebrated when Ardern appeared to eliminate community transmission of the coronavirus with the earlier hard lockdown that forced almost everyone to stay at home.
There were concerns a repeat of that process would come with a huge economic cost and Ardern on Friday 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.
Prior to the extension announcement, Westpac Banking Corp estimated the current level of lockdown measures in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand would cost the economy about NZ$300 million, or 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product.
Reserve Bank of New Zealand Deputy Governor Geoff Bascand told Reuters a sustained resurgence of the virus posed "a major risk" to the bank's outlook.