New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, will remain under a strict lockdown for at least another week, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced, as the country battles to stamp out an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant.
The country reported 54 new cases of Covid-19 over the weekend, and 33 new cases on Monday – a slight rise from last week’s average. There have now been a total of 955 cases in the outbreak. While its overall trajectory is still moving well down from its peak, officials are concerned about a number of mystery cases that investigators and contact tracers have not yet been able to link with others.
On Monday, Ardern said that while there was no widespread transmission in Auckland, or the rest of the country, these unlinked cases may indicate there were chains of transmission in the wider community.
Ardern said there were 17 active unlinked cases, but officials were mainly concerned about three or four of them.
“The fact that we are finding them through surveillance and community testing, rather than through contact tracing, that is what we’re concerned about because that does present risk,” she said.
“Alert level 4 is working,” Ardern said, but added that the job was not done yet.
“Level 4 remains our best option to beat Delta and contain the virus at this stage of the outbreak. We don’t want to risk the sacrifices everyone has made, and all the hard work you’ve put in, by moving to alert level three too quickly.”
Ardern thanked Aucklanders for their vigilance during the past month.
“You’ve done an amazing job so far protecting yourselves, your family and your community. In fact, all of your hard work is the reason that the rest of the country is safe. We owe you a debt of gratitude. I hope you know and feel that huge appreciation that we have for you, and the hard work that you’re putting in right now.
The rest of the country will remain in alert level 2 – out of lockdown, but with some remaining restrictions on gathering size and mask-wearing – for another week.
Ardern said keeping the rest of the country in level 2 would ensure that if the virus got out of Auckland, the spread would be more controlled.
Cabinet will review the settings – in place until Tuesday 21 September – on Monday.
A total of 27 cases over the course of the outbreak, all in Auckland, have not yet been epidemiologically linked. The ministry of health said 10 of the 27 are now more than 14 days old.
“The detection of mystery cases unlinked to the current outbreak is concerning,” immunologist Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu of University of Otago Wellington said in a statement. “Community transmission appears to continue, and it will be important to identify and break new transmission paths for the virus quickly. The unlinked cases highlight the need for everyone to remain vigilant.”
Meanwhile, one couple sparked outrage when they were caught dodging city border protections to take a holiday to Wanaka, in the South Island.
Police called it a “calculated and deliberate flouting of the Alert Level 4 restrictions”. A police spokesperson said the trip was “completely unacceptable and will be extremely upsetting to all those who are working hard and making great sacrifices in order to stamp out Covid in our community.”
Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult told the New Zealand Herald the couple were “unbelievably selfish” and had jeopardised people’s health and livelihoods. They had used essential worker clearances to cross the border out of Auckland to Hamilton, and fly from there to their holiday home in Wanaka. Police said they would be charged and appear in court later this month.
Overall, compliance with New Zealand’s lockdown has been strong – but police said in the Auckland region, 67 people had been charged with a total of 71 offences as of Saturday.
The country also reached a new milestone in its vaccine rollout, with two-thirds of the eligible population having had at least one dose. Sixty-six% of the eligible population (those aged 12 and older) have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 34% are fully vaccinated*.
*A note on data: the Guardian has begun calculating the percentage of NZ’s eligible population vaccinated from Statistics New Zealand population data, comparing numbers vaccinated against a total 12+ population of 4,355,300. This may differ slightly from government-generated percentages that use different denominators, such as the Health Service Utilisation Population – which measures all those 12+ who are engaged with the health system.