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New Zealand will go into lockdown after the first coronavirus case since February was reported, after a person in Auckland tested positive on Tuesday.
It is assumed the case will be confirmed to be the more contagious Delta variant, and as no link to travel or managed isolation has been established, the health ministry is wasting no time in locking down in order to effectively investigate the origin of the case.
In a press conference on Tuesday, prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would be moving back to an alert Level 4 from 11.59pm this evening – the country’s highest level of lockdown – in order to trace the current case and locate any associated cases.
At Level 4, people are expected to remain in their household bubbles and leave their homes only for physical exercise in their neighbourhoods, to access the supermarket, to access necessary medical care or coronavirus tests, or to go to the pharmacy.
Schools and childcare facilities will be closed, and coronavirus vaccinations will be suspended for 48 hours.
The prime minister also urged people to wear face coverings when leaving their homes, adding that official guidance on masking would be released in the next 24 hours.
While the measures may seem extreme in response to a single case, its unknown origin and genomic sequence are causes for concern in a country that has largely kept the Delta variant at bay.
In the press conference, Ms Ardern said: “We have a positive case of Covid-19 in the community. We will not be in a position to identify if this is a case of the Delta variant of Covid-19 until genome sequencing is returned tomorrow.
“However, every case we have had in MIQ (managed isolation quarantine) recently has been the Delta variant of Covid, and Delta is surging around the world.
“While we cannot confirm it yet, we need to assume our case will be too, and that has shaped all of the decisions we have made this afternoon.
“I want to assure New Zealand that we have planned for this eventuality and that we will now be putting in place that plan to contain and stamp out Covid-19 once again.
“Going hard and early has worked for us before. While we know that Delta is a more dangerous enemy to combat, the same actions that overcame the virus last year can be applied to beat it again.”
The chief executive of the ministry of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, added details about the positive case: “The case is a 58-year-old male from a household in Devonport on the north shore of Auckland.
“He became symptomatic on Saturday 14 August, so the infectious period is believed to have started on Thursday 12 August.”
Dr Bloomfield said that the man was unvaccinated, although added that he had made efforts to book his vaccination before testing positive. The man’s wife, who is fully vaccinated, has not tested positive for the virus; both he and his wife remain in self-isolation as investigations continue.
“Importantly, and this has been fundamental to our advice to the government, at this point there is no obvious link between this case and the border,” Dr Bloomfield said.
“This case was identified in Auckland, but it is a national issue. Because we cannot link the case to the border at this point it is possible there are other cases around in Auckland and other possible chains of transmission.
“People from around the country will have travelled to Auckland and back to other parts of New Zealand.
“Therefore, whilst it’s a case identified in Auckland, it requires us all to be part of the response. Hard work from everyone across the country will help us get on top of this outbreak.”
He added that genomic sequencing should give more information about potential links to other cases, and that ongoing interviews were assisting in the contact tracing process.
In announcing the new lockdown, Ms Ardern said: “We are one of the last countries around the world to have the Delta variant in our community … We are in the position to learn from experience overseas on what actions work, and what actions don’t work.
“We only get one chance, that’s why cabinet has met this afternoon and made the decision New Zealand will move to alert Level 4 from 11.59 pm tonight.
“Level 4 will be for an initial period of three days, except for Auckland and the Coromandel peninsula, who we anticipate will likely be at Level 4 for seven days, due to them being most closely linked to our current case.”
She added that it was better to come out strong and defeat the virus initially, rather than slowly ramping up measures and risking widespread health consequences.
“It is better to start high and go down levels, rather than start too low, not contain the virus, and see it move quickly. We’ve seen the dire consequences of taking too long to act in other countries, not least our neighbours.
“Just as we successfully stayed home and saved lives last year, I’m asking the team of five million to unite once more to defeat what is likely to be this more dangerous and transmissible variant of the virus.”
Throughout the pandemic, New Zealand has reported just 2,500 confirmed Covid cases and 26 related deaths. The low figures are largely due to a swift and strict government response that kept its borders mostly closed throughout the last year and a half.