WELLINGTON (REUTERS) – New Zealand’s first coronavirus outbreak in three months has spread further, officials reported on Friday (Aug 14), just hours before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is due to announce whether a lockdown in the country’s biggest city will be extended.
Officials reported 12 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, all linked to a now 30-strong cluster that was first detected in a family in Auckland two days ago.
Officials believe an imported strain of the virus is responsible for the country’s first outbreak in three months, but are still investigating how the family was infected.
Ms Ardern, under pressure ahead of a general election next month, repeated her “go hard, go early” response to the pandemic this week, putting Auckland, home to about 1.7 million people, into lockdown and reinstating social distancing measures across the country.
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She is due to announce on Friday whether a lockdown in the country’s biggest city will be eased or extended, but there is growing concern that a repeat of the tough five-week lockdown she imposed earlier in the year could cripple the economy
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said it was a positive sign that all the new confirmed cases were linked to the Auckland cluster, but noted two were recorded in Tokorua, in the neighbouring Waikato region
Authorities had also identified one other probable case, Dr Bloomfield said, in which connections still had to be traced.
“We are not out of the woods yet,” he said during a televised news conference, adding that contact tracing and testing would continue at high levels in coming days
Health Minister Chris Hipkins said that genome testing of the strain of Covid-19 contracted by the Auckland family suggested it had originated in Britain or Australia.
However, he said how the Auckland family had acquired it was still under investigation, countering comments from Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters late on Thursday that a quarantine facility breach had been identified as the source
“People talking about the border, even that’s premature at this point, we simply do not have enough information to make even an educated guess about where this may have come from,” Mr Hipkins told broadcaster 1NEWS
Health officials said earlier in the week they were looking into the “low possibility” the virus was imported on frozen food packages. Ten of the new casess have been linked to a cool store that takes imported frozen goods from overseas
Some prominent local health experts suggested it was more likely the virus had been quietly spreading in Auckland for weeks, despite Ms Ardern‘s efforts to eradicate it with an initial five-week hard lockdown
Dr Bloomfield dismissed such suggestions, saying there was “very good evidence” that was not the case
“The nature of this outbreak shows how once you identify the first case you find quite a lot quite quickly,” he said. “We just wouldn’t have not found cases in community if it was lurking away in the community.”
The main opposition National Party has blasted the government, saying it failed to secure quarantine facilities and accusing it of withholding information about the latest outbreak
New Zealanders celebrated when Ms Ardern appeared to eliminate community transmission of the coronavirus with the earlier hard lockdown that forced almost everyone to stay at home
But opinion is divided on whether the 40-year-old leader should repeat that strategy, given its huge economic cost and mounting global evidence that the virus cannot be permanently suppressed
Westpac Banking Corp estimated the current level of lockdown measures in Auckland and the rest of New Zealand would cost the economy about NZ$300 million (S$269.42 million) or 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product.
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Ms Ardern is expected to announce her decision on lockdown measures at 1730 local time (0530 GMT) after meeting with her Cabinet and the release of the daily infection numbers. She has said she will make a decision by Sunday on whether to postpone the Sept 19 election
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