Lockdown measures will be introduced across Auckland from midnight on Sunday, while restrictions will also be increased elsewhere in New Zealand, after three local cases were reported over the weekend.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the government was taking a cautionary approach to the cases, and acting under the assumption that they involved new, more transmissible strains of the virus. The source of the infections is not yet known.
From midnight on Sunday, Auckland will enter tougher level 3 restrictions for three days, with a border placed around the city. Under the rules, which have not been imposed upon Auckland since August last year, people are required to work from home where possible, and schools will be open only to the children of essential workers.
The rest of the country is moving to level 2 restrictions for the same time period, with limits on mass gatherings and mandatory face masks on public transport. Reviews of the measures will be held every 24 hours, according to Ardern.
The restrictions were announced after three members of a family in Auckland – a mother, father and daughter – tested positive on Sunday. The mother works at the laundry department of LSG Sky Chefs, one of the world’s largest airline catering providers, in Mangere. Covid-19 testing is being carried out at the workplace.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director general of health, said the family followed the correct procedures by self isolating when they developed symptoms.
The daughter is a student at Papatoetoe high school, which will be closed on Monday and Tuesday. Five teachers and 28 students are considered close contacts, and all other students and staff at the school are “casual” contacts, who have been asked to self-isolate, said the school principal, Vaughan Couillault.
Testing facilities will be provided at the school during the week. Contacts of the father, a tradesman, were also being traced.
Ardern said there was “not yet a complete picture” of the outbreak, and that officials were awaiting the results of testing, as well as information from genome sequencing.
The decision to introduce tougher restrictions was “not taken lightly”, Ardern said, adding that she was aware of their economic impact. But she said: “We are also conscious of the far greater cost to the entire economy if we make the wrong call.”
“The precautionary approach has served us very well to date and, now, given the current global environment we are in, that further reinforces not weakens the need for that precautionary approach,” Ardern said.
Under Auckland’s level 3 measures, people should work from home where possible, and schools will be open only to the children of essential workers. Public venues such as libraries, museums, cinemas, food courts, gyms, pools, playgrounds and markets will close, as will businesses that cannot ensure physical distancing.
Seeking to prevent panic-buying, Ardern said supermarkets and petrol stations would remain open so there was “no need to rush out to get any essential items”. Gatherings of up to 10 people can continue, but only for weddings and funerals.
Level 2 restrictions placed on the rest of the country mandate face coverings on public transport and aircraft and increased vigilance in terms of physical distancing. No more than 100 people are allowed at social gatherings, including weddings, birthdays and funerals.
Prior to developing symptoms, two of the confirmed cases went for a short break in New Plymouth during the Waitangi weekend on 6-7 February and visited various locations. It is unclear if they were infectious at the time. According to a Ministry of Health statement, the test results were indicative of new and active infections.
There is a fourth member of the household, who has also been tested and has been moved with rest of the family, who is isolating at home.
Genomic sequencing is now under way to determine if the family has been infected with one of the new, more transmissible variants.
Some testing centres in Auckland have extended their hours but Ardern urged people to get tested only if they had symptoms or had been to an affected site.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said before the lockdown announcement that there would be no change to the green zone flights allowing people from New Zealand to travel to Australia without needing to quarantine for 14 days.
“We feel at the moment the risk is very low,” he said. “But of course we will and we have looked at what those exposure sites are in New Zealand and we will be looking at that for anyone coming across the border from New Zealand.”
State health officials had sought the manifests of all New Zealand flights into Australia in the past few days to follow up as a precaution, Kelly said.
Separately on Sunday, one more case of coronavirus was reported in managed isolation facilities.
The new cases come a day after the first death in five months of someone with coronavirus in New Zealand, although the fatality is not yet being officially treated as Covid-related. On Saturday, Bloomfield said a person with a serious health condition tested positive for the virus while in mandatory isolation and died after being moved to North Shore hospital in Auckland.
Ardern said she was asking New Zealanders to be kind and strong. “I know we all feel the same way when this happens, we all get that sense of ‘not again’. But remember we have been here before and that means we know how to get out of this again, and that is together,” she said, urging people to check that their neighbours in Auckland were supported.
With Australian Associated Press