New Zealand’s summer of unrestricted movement and social interaction has been brought to an abrupt halt by three new community cases of Covid-19.
After an emergency cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern placed largest city Auckland into a snap, three-day lockdown and reimposed social distancing requirements for the rest of the country while authorities race to find the source of the new infections. Genomic sequencing shows them to be the more virulent U.K. strain of the virus, the Ministry of Health said on Monday.
“This result reinforces the decision to take swift and robust action around the latest cases to detect and stamp out the possibility of any further transmission,” the ministry said.
It’s a pandemic reality check for the South Pacific nation, which hasn’t had to impose any restrictions since August last year when a community outbreak pushed Auckland into a three-week lockdown. The fresh limitations on activity could dent the country’s strong economic rebound and will be a further setback for the establishment of a free-travel zone with Australia, which is also grappling with a new outbreak in Victoria.
Australia and New Zealand have both had their international borders closed since the outset of the pandemic and require returning residents to isolate in quarantine hotels.
Auckland’s move to Alert Level 3 means people are asked to stay at home and work remotely if possible. Schools, daycare centers, shops and public venues are largely closed, and gatherings are restricted to 10 people. The rest of New Zealand has been raised to Alert Level 2, requiring social distancing, but schools and businesses remain open. Gatherings are restricted to 100 people.
The restrictions will impact on sporting events, including the next round of the America’s Cup sailing regatta scheduled for Wednesday, and prevent Aucklanders from traveling outside the region.
The new cases are a family from South Auckland — a mother, father and daughter. In addition to visiting local shops, two of the people traveled to the North Island city of New Plymouth last weekend, where they visited a number of tourist attractions.
There were no additional community cases reported Monday. Health officials said they have identified 10 close contacts of the infected household, six of whom have returned negative tests with four results pending.
It is not yet clear how the family contracted the virus but the woman works for LSG Sky Chefs, an airline catering company, where she handles laundry.
Ardern said several scenarios are being investigated. One is that the virus came from a transit passenger, while another is that it came from international aircrew, who in some cases have their uniforms cleaned at the facility where the infected woman works, she told Radio New Zealand Monday. But the most likely scenario is human-to-human transmission, Ardern said.
The new restrictions are initially in place until midnight on Wednesday but will be reviewed daily.