WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand announced on Tuesday it was shutting down its largest city, Auckland, after four new cases of COVID-19 were discovered in the city, the first evidence of domestic transmission after being coronavirus-free for 102 days.
New Zealand’s successful fight against COVID-19 was hailed globally and the Pacific island nation of 5 million was seen as one of the safest places, as the pandemic raged globally.
Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the four cases were within one family in South Auckland. One person is in their 50s. They had no history of international travel. Family members have been tested and contact tracing is under way.
News of the cases sent panic across the country with media reporting people rushing to supermarkets to stock up, and businesses preparing to shut.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Auckland would move to level 3 restriction from noon on Wednesday as a “precautionary approach”, which would mean people should stay away from work and school, and gatherings or more than 10 people would again be restricted.
The restriction would be applied for three days until Friday, which she said would be enough time to assess the situation, gather information and make sure there was widespread contact tracing.
“This is something we have prepared for,” Ardern said in a surprise news conference, adding that the increased caution was as the source of the virus was unknown.
“We have had a 102 days and it was easy to feel New Zealand was out of the woods. No country has gone as far as we did without having a resurgence. And because we were the only ones, we had to plan. And we have planned,” she said.
New Zealand is set to vote in a national election on Sept. 19, in which Ardern is seen to winning comfortably, according to opinion polls, on the back of her handling of the pandemic.
But the return of the virus could backfire on the government.
Ardern said she has not given any consideration to the impact of the new restrictions on the polls at this stage.
“This will come as a shock to all New Zealanders who believed what we had been told – that we had got on top of this virus,” the main opposition National Party leader Judith Collins said in a statement.
Parliament is scheduled to be dissolved on Wednesday to make way for the election.
Auckland Mayor Phil Goff said: “I am urging Aucklanders to come together like we did last time to stamp out community transmission. Please remain calm, please do not panic buy and please follow the lockdown rules.”
Ardern said travel into Auckland, on the North Island, would be restricted unless you lived there.
She said the rest of New Zealand would enter alert level 2 from midday on Wednesday for three days. This would mean social distancing measures would be applied again and mass gatherings would be limited to 100 people.
New Zealand was placed under a tight lockdown for weeks after reported its first known case on Feb. 26 and the last case of community transmission was detected on May 1.
It marked 100 days without a domestic transmission of the coronavirus on Sunday, but warned against complacency as countries like Vietnam and Australia which once had the virus under control now battle a resurgence.
Bloomfield said the unknown nature of the new cases meant it was likely there would be more positive case in the coming days.
He said people should use masks in places where it was hard to physically distance.
“The case is a wake up call for any complacency that may have set in,” Bloomfield said.
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