Covid shock forces Auckland into Level 3

Auckland will move into to Level 3 'lockdown' from midday today - with the rest of the country put into Level 2 - after a community outbreak in South Auckland

New Zealand has been shocked back into a state of Covid-19 infection, with community transmission detected in four confirmed cases from one family in South Auckland outside the managed isolation and quarantine system.

Auckland will be put into Alert Level 3 from midday Wednesday, with all schools closed, people required to work from home and gatherings restricted to 10 people maximum. Travelling into Auckland will be prohibited, other than for Auckland residents returning home.

The rest of the country will move to Alert Level 2 on Wednesday, with social distancing rules in place and mass gatherings limited to 100 people.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country needed a strong and rapid health response, and would require Aucklanders to move to Level 3 restrictions for three days to give time to gather information and put widespread contact tracing in place.

"I know this information will be very difficult to receive. But we have all prepared for it.

"We're asking people in Auckland to stay home to stop the spread ... the simple things you will already be familiar with. First act as if you have Covid and the people around you have Covid."

The outbreak, announced at a hurriedly called Beehive press conference at 9.15pm Tuesday, prompted the Government to declare the new alert level. It came after 102 days without community transmission and 39 days before the general election.

"We need to make sure we have as much information as possible...before we make any decisions that have a longer-term impact."

Ardern said the country had a "resurgence plan" that was being activated, taking into account lessons from such returns of the virus overseas. More than one Auckland suburb was involved.

The important priority was to trace this case back to its origin, with no connection yet established to managed isolation or high-risk workers.

The Prime Minister had been informed of the new cases at 4pm on Tuesday, as she was returning to Parliament after a campaign trip to Whanganui. Asked about the delay in informing the public, Ardern said the extra time had allowed additional contact tracing efforts to take place, while also allowing ministers to draft the necessary legal orders for the new restrictions to be put in place.

She did not wish to "predetermine" whether the restrictions for Auckland and the rest of the country would need to be extended beyond the initial three-day period, with the 72-hour window allowing officials to conduct large-scale, rapid testing and contact tracing.

"Just keeping in mind these are very significant decisions: moving an entire city, and New Zealand's largest city, into Level 3 restrictions is not a decision we take lightly, [and] we need to make sure we have as much information as possible ... before we make any decisions that have a longer-term impact."

The official alert announcing Auckland's move into Level 3, and the rest of New Zealand into Level 2.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said in this new case, one person had tested positive on Monday without having travelled overseas and had confirmed positive today, with three others in the household also testing positive. Close contacts at "more than one work place" had been identified and were in isolation.

New Zealanders had to return to stringent hand hygiene and careful social distancing, Bloomfield said, while the Ministry of Health now recommended that Kiwis consider wearing masks in places where physical distancing was not possible.

"The case is a wake-up call against any complacency that might set in."

There had been significant progress over the last few months in improving the national contact tracing system used by New Zealand's public health units to ensure information could be shared around the country.

While Bloomfield encouraged New Zealanders to download and use the NZ Covid Tracer app, there were currently no plans to activate it for the Auckland cases given the more significant work already underway by health officials.

Ardern said it was likely that more cases would be uncovered as contact tracing advanced, with Bloomfield emphasising the need to identify and isolate all Covid-positive patients as soon as possible, along with close contacts.

"My request is not to be dispirited or disheartened. When we've rolled out our plans before it has worked, so I'm asking that everyone joins us on that journey again, remind themselves of what we had to do last time, and just continues to stay with us."

However, the pair remained confident that community transmission had not continued undetected after New Zealand was declared Covid-free, given the lack of any hospitalisations and the fact the country went over 100 days without a new case despite extensive testing around the country.

Ardern asked New Zealanders to refrain from panic buying or pessimism about the country's ability to repel Covid-19, given it had done so earlier in the year.

"My request is not to be dispirited or disheartened. When we've rolled out our plans before it has worked, so I'm asking that everyone joins us on that journey again, remind themselves of what we had to do last time, and just continues to stay with us."

Before last night's announcement there were 22 positive cases within the managed isolation and quarantine system, bringing New Zealand's total number since the first outbreak of confirmed and probable cases to 1570.

Politicians react

National leader Judith Collins, who was given advance warning of the announcement by Ardern, said the news would "come as a shock to all New Zealanders who believed what we had been told - that we had got on top of this virus".

"It is disappointing that it is once again in our community," Collins said.

National would be "seeking an explanation and clear answers about the situation we now find ourselves in", she said.

“A lot of work will need to be done over the coming days to figure out exactly what this latest case of community transmission will mean for the country, and I urge all New Zealanders to follow the hygiene protocols that saw us do such a great job of dealing with the first wave of Covid-19."

All National Party campaign events for Wednesday would be cancelled as a result of the news, Collins said.

Responding to the announcement, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff called for calm and patience as the city prepared for another lockdown.

“I understand that people are probably feeling a little bit scared, a little angry and a little confused right now. None of us wanted to go back into a lockdown, but we always knew this was a very real possibility,” Goff said.

“I am urging Aucklanders to come together like we did last time to stamp out community transmission. Please remain calm, please do not panic buy and please follow the lockdown rules."

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