A fresh outbreak of coronavirus in New Zealand is due to a “quarantine breach”, the country’s deputy prime minister has suggested.
Coronavirus cases in Auckland have grown to 17, while officials said the number is likely to increase following more than 100 days without any cases of local transmission.
Speaking on ABC TV, Winston Peters said the quarantine theory was put to him via a “very reliable” New Zealand journalist.
He said: “I think, when that comes out very shortly, in a matter of maybe less than a day, we’ll find out that was the case.”
He added: “I think, as an experienced politician and as a lawyer, that the moment I found out that this strain is not unique to my country, it had to go to a point of entry either by sea, by air, or in quarantine facilities.
“And the quarantine facility is the one I think is the most likely.”
While Peters suggested the outbreak was down to a quarantine breach, health officials also raised the possibility that the virus had arrived in New Zealand via freight, given one of the infected people works at Americold food cold-storage facility in Auckland.
The facility is now being swabbed to check if it was a possible source of the infections.
Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said: ”We do know from studies overseas that actually, the virus can survive in some refrigerated environments for quite some time.”
Bloomfield said he expected that, sooner or later, the new cases would be linked to somebody who had arrived in the country with an infection or a worker at a quarantine facility, airport or maritime port.
He added: “At the moment we haven't established a direct connection. But as we find each case and do that thorough interview and investigation, that will help."
A lockdown in Auckland, designed to extinguish the outbreak, could be extended well beyond an initial three days.
Auckland was moved to alert level 3 on Wednesday, meaning that non-essential workers are required to stay home and bars, restaurants and most businesses are shut.
The rest of the country has moved to level 2, requiring social distancing.
The government is due to make a decision on Friday on whether to extend Auckland's lockdown, which seems increasingly likely given the new cases.
The latest 13 cases could all be linked through work and family to the initial four cases, meaning there is no evidence yet of a wider community outbreak, according to health officials.
The outbreak was found after a man in his 50s went to his doctor on Monday with symptoms and was swabbed twice, testing positive both times. Three more people in his household tested positive later.
Until Tuesday, the only known cases of the virus in New Zealand were 22 travellers held in quarantine after returning from abroad.
New Zealand has been praised globally for its virus response and got rid of the virus by imposing a strict lockdown in late March when only about 100 people had tested positive for the disease, stopping its spread.