Jacinda Ardern says she won’t hesitate to impose tougher restrictions to contain New Zealand’s growing Covid-19 outbreak, as the country reported 83 cases on Sunday – a new daily high for this outbreak.
All but one of the new cases were found in Auckland, with the other in Wellington.
A total of 511 New Zealanders have been infected in the outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant, first identified in the community on 17 August. The number needing treatment in hospital rose overnight from 25 to 34.
The prime minister called that jump “deeply concerning and the whole reason we’ve taken the actions we have”.
“We know that Delta is more infectious but we are seeing signs telling us it is more dangerous. We are seeing that in our hospitalisations,” Ardern said.
New Zealand entered a national lockdown within hours of the first positive case being picked up, which will continue for at least another week.
Ardern has warned that Auckland, the country’s biggest city, is likely to be in lockdown for at least another fortnight – and possibly longer.
During a one-hour briefing in Wellington on Sunday, she suggested New Zealand’s efforts to execute its Covid elimination strategy hung in the balance.
“It’s more important than ever that people should follow the rules … we’re really still at a critical point right now,” she said.
Ardern reported three quarters of recent cases were contacts of known cases, and half were household cases.
The director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said the country should expect “high-ish” case numbers over the next few days.
Ardern said her government was seeking more information on the spread of the infections.
“If we need to tighten up our restrictions further, we will,” she said.
“We have a small number of workplaces that are operating at level four that have seen transmission within staff.
“This may not be a problem with the rules, say, on the factory floor, but what is happening perhaps before and after shifts or even during break time. We’re looking at all of this in more detail.”
The new rules are likely to apply only to Auckland; the centre of the outbreak with 496 of the 511 cases.
Given the limited spread outside of NZ’s biggest city, all regions south of Auckland will move to level three restrictions – which allow for childcare, takeaway food and contactless retail – from Wednesday.
Vaccination rates have jumped dramatically during the lockdown, with another 78,000 people receiving a vaccination on Saturday, meaning almost 14% of the population has been jabbed since this outbreak began.
The surge has presented a problem with supply, however, with health ministry records showing around 400,000 doses were sitting at central warehouses – enough for just under a week’s supply at current rates.
Ardern said New Zealand would not run out of vaccines, but she said a new strategy was needed in light of the unexpected growth.
“It’s a very dynamic situation. It’s not a matter of running out, it’s a matter of whether or not we are in a position where we need to have a little less demand.”
New Zealanders had been living virtually virus-free and without curbs until the August outbreak. So far, the country has recorded just over 3,100 confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic and 26 related deaths, according to the health ministry.
“Having positive cases in our communities, along with the impact of lockdowns I know can be hugely unsettling, and that uncertainty can impact everyone’s mental health,” Ardern said, announcing additional financial resources for mental health and urging people to seek help.
“So, it’s OK to feel overwhelmed, to feel upset, or even to feel frustrated because this situation is often all of those things.”
With Reuters and AAP