A mystery coronavirus outbreak in New Zealand has forced the government to postpone the dissolution of parliament ahead of an election just weeks away, as the country’s largest city goes into lockdown and the nation faces a swift return to coronavirus restrictions.
Hours after New Zealand’s first positive test of community-transmitted Covid-19 in three months, prime minister Jacinda Ardern made the decision to place Auckland into stage 3 lockdown – closing schools and businesses. Panic buying returned to supermarkets ahead of the lockdown, which began at midday.
Four people within the same family tested positive for the illness in south Auckland, and the origins of where they contracted the disease remain a mystery.
Genomic sequencing was being deployed, Ardern said, and if the source could not be located by Friday it was likely the lockdown would be extended.
The workplace of one of the family member’s has been shut down, and contact tracing was also under way in the city of Rotorua, which two of the family members visited over the weekend while infectious and displaying symptoms.
“I know this is unsettling but we do have a plan,” the prime minister said on Wednesday, adding that her team had prepared for a community outbreak, despite three months of no cases.
But opposition leader Judith Collins critcised the government for the return of the virus.
“I am, like I’m sure the rest of the country is, extremely disappointed that this [Covid-19] has been allowed in through our borders,” Collins told the New Zealand Herald.
“I have seen the Prime Minister tonight, who is leader of the Labour Party, in the middle of an election campaign, speaking about all this failure.”
The dissolution of parliament, due to take place on Wednesday, was delayed and a decision would be made on Monday, Ardern said. The electoral commission was working through the implications of the outbreak for the upcoming general election, scheduled for 19 September.
“It’s too early to make decisions but there is a bit of flexibility to move the election date if required,” Ardern told a televised media conference, adding that the poll could be rescheduled for any date before 21 November.
An election could continue under stage 2 restrictions, but it would have to be moved if the lockdown was tightened to the next level.
Per the Prime Minister’s announcement, the dissolution of Parliament will no longer be held today. The dissolution can be rescheduled for any time before 13 October 2020 (i.e. 3 years after the writ for the 2017 general election was returned). #nzpol
— NZ Parliament (@NZParliament) August 11, 2020
Addressing the media for more than an hour, Ardern gave a detailed timeline of the latest cases, revealing it took her seven hours to make the decision to shut down New Zealand’s economic hub for the second time.
By comparison, Melbourne took two weeks to enter lockdown after mystery cases began to be recorded.
Auckland’s level 3 lockdown starts at noon on Wednesday and lasts until midnight on Friday.
Aged care facilities will also be shut immediately in a bid to protect the vulnerable residents of rest-homes, who made up the bulk of deaths during New Zealand’s first outbreak.
Experts have said it is likely Auckland’s lockdown will stay in place longer than three days, and they overwhelmingly supported the government’s “rapid response” approach, as it was likely there were now more cases circulating in the community.
The family involved had all worked, travelled and moved around the city while symptomatic, meaning spread of the illness could be extensive.
“It’s obviously disappointing to have cases of community transmission again in New Zealand. But we knew this could happen at some point. Now the race is on to find the source of the cases and break any chains of transmission,” said Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles of Auckland University. “Any delays just mean more opportunities for the virus to spread further…we only have to look to Victoria to see how catastrophic any delays can be.”
“People need to prepare themselves for these restrictions being in place for longer than three days if more cases come to light or the source of the infection proves difficult to pin down.”
The rest of New Zealand has had its alert level increased from 1 to 2, meaning social-distancing and heightened hygiene practices are now in place.
Demand for testing, panic-buying of essential goods, and widespread purchasing of face masks was reported country-wide.
“The best-case scenario is if we’re able to identify the source of the infection,” Ardern said.
“You will hear us continue to give updates as to whether or not we’re getting closer to that information. If we aren’t able to identify the source and we see positives that are difficult to link, that makes it more difficult.”
Director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said there was no country in the world better prepared than New Zealand to beat back an outbreak.
“We’ve done this before, we can do this again,” he said.
The prime minister said 5m face masks would be made available for New Zealanders from government stocks and she urged Aucklanders to wear them whenever venturing out of the home; though she shied away from making the request mandatory.
Ardern also encouraged the public to make their own face masks from cloths or bandannas if they were unable to buy or access them.
New Zealand currently has the capacity to test more than 12,000 people a day, with stocks of 270,000 tests in-country.
Police commissioner, Andrew Coster, said nine checkpoints would be in place around the Auckland regional boundaries, and more officers on the streets in public areas such as supermarkets.
So far Aucklanders had largely reacted calmly to the news, though there were reports of long lines at testing facilities, and isolated incidents of panic-buying and disorder at some supermarkets.
Dr Hiran Thabrew, child psychiatrist and paediatrician at the University of Auckland and Auckland district health board, said returning to lockdown would provoke feelings of anxiety, disappointment and “even a sense of grief” for many.