New Zealand will go into a national lockdown on Tuesday night, after detecting one case of Covid-19.
The entire country will be at alert level 4 – the highest level of lockdown – for at least three days from midnight, and the regions of Auckland and Coromandel for four to seven days.
New Zealand has not had a level 4 lockdown in more than a year, and the case is believed to be the first Delta in-community transmission.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said: “Delta has been called a gamechanger, and it is. It means we need to again go hard and early to stop the spread. We have seen what can happen elsewhere if we fail to get on top of it. We only get one chance.”
Under level 4, all New Zealanders are asked to shelter in place in a “bubble” that only includes their immediate household or dependents. They can only leave the house to buy food or medical supplies, to access medical care or for socially distanced exercise.
Ardern said New Zealand would not know if the case was Delta until its genome was sequenced – but that the government would be working under that assumption until informed otherwise. Data released by the Ministry of Health on Monday showed 100% of Covid-19 cases detected at New Zealand’s border in recent weeks had been Delta.
“With Delta raging around the world … it was not a matter of if, but when. As it is, we are one of the last countries in the world to have the Delta variant in our community, so we have had the chance to learn from others,” she said.
“We’ve seen the dire consequences of taking too long to act in other countries, not least our neighbours,” she said, referring to the outbreak in Australia, which the country has struggled to bring under control.
Health officials have not yet been able to establish any connection between this case and the country’s border facilities. The case in question is a 58-year-old man from Devonport, Auckland. He was tested on Saturday the 14th, so the infectious period was considered to have started on Thursday 12th. He and his wife traveled to the Coromandel region on Friday, then returned to Auckland on the 15th. So far, the Ministry of Health has identified 23 locations of interest – 13 in and around Coromandel and 10 in Auckland.
The country’s director of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said the case was “a national issue”. “Because we cannot link the case to the border at this point, it is possible there are other cases around 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.
“It requires us all to be part of the response, and hard work from everyone across the country will help us get on top of this outbreak.”
Ardern made her customary exhortation to New Zealanders to “be kind” and protect their communities. “I know that one of the worst things about Covid-19 is the absolute uncertainty that it creates. But we know more now than we did a year ago. We know that the strategy works. We know that we are a strong team of 5 million. And we know that life will get easier. We just need to keep going.”
Most New Zealanders are still not vaccinated. As of this week, about 22% of the 16+ population were fully vaccinated. The country’s vaccine rollout was initially slowed down by constraints on supply, but it is expecting to vaccinate all of its willing population by the end of the year. Vaccination will be open to all adults from the start of September.
New Zealand does not have a compulsory mask mandate, but Ardern and health officials urged people to wear a mask whenever they left the house.
The epidemiologist and public health professor Michael Baker urged New Zealanders to wear masks, especially in indoor environments such as supermarkets and pharmacies.
He pointed to the recent case of transmission in a quarantine hotel, where the Delta variant was transmitted from an infected person in one room to another three people across the hall, with the doors only open for three to five seconds.
“It’s this idea of fleeting contact, or how the virus aerosol can waft through the air across the corridor from one room to another. People have to have that in mind now, in any indoor environment that you’re in – if there’s other people in it, they could be firing out these aerosols by simply breathing, talking, laughing … they don’t even have to have any symptoms.
“Everyone in Auckland now should be wearing masks in all indoor environments where they’re with other people immediately,” Baker said.
Baker said it was unlikely that the case would be directly connected to the border without intermediary cases.
“The other scenario – which I think is more likely – is a much tougher one,” he said. “Where this case appeared from an unknown source, which means that there must be other cases out in the community which haven’t been identified … That means there have been infectious people in the community, potentially for several days, and you don’t know how widespread the outbreak is.”
He likened that possibility to an iceberg: “You can see the tip, but you don’t yet know how big the base is.”
The government has also outlined a series of financial support packages that cover wages for businesses closed by the order, and pay for those who are unable to work if they experience symptoms, or have to self-isolate. The minister of finance, Grant Robertson, said: “We know from our recent experience that the best economic response continues to be a strong health response.”
After the case was announced on Tuesday afternoon, local media documented long queues and crowded supermarkets as some people rushed to buy supplies. Officials urged against panic buying, saying supermarkets remained open at all alert levels. The government has also asked that people continue scanning QR codes to assist with content tracing, practice hand hygiene, stay at home if ill, and call a doctor or healthline about getting tested.