New Zealand Health Department Director General Ashley Bloomfield said Wednesday morning that the country had recorded 62 new locally acquired cases of COVID-19, taking the total number of cases since the Delta outbreak began last week to 210. Twelve people are in the hospital with the virus.
“While this is steady growth, it is not exponential,” said Bloomfield. “The vast majority of cases, we have been able to identify the link.”
Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is the center of the outbreak while a smaller outbreak has occurred in the capital, Wellington. According to the New Zealand Health Department, there are around 21,000 individual contacts who are now connected to the cluster. Of that, 12,700 of them have been contacted by authorities.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that the country will remain in a level four lockdown until at least Friday, while Auckland will remain in lockdown until at least August 31.
“For now, everyone is in agreement: elimination is the strategy. There is no discussion or debate amongst any of us about that because that is the safest option for us while we continue to vaccinate our people,” she said, adding that her government would be seeking advice from experts on whether the new outbreak of the Delta variant will “change our approach going forward.”
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand needs to hold its course.
“To New Zealanders at home who are saying, ‘is this still the right strategy,’ it’s too soon to throw in the towel. We’ve come this far, it would be an absolute waste for us to give up on this now. We still want to drive this particular outbreak of COVID-19 out of our community and get back to a sense of normality,” said Hipkins.
“We do want to get to the point where lockdowns aren’t the answer to potential outbreaks within the community, but we’re not there yet, and we’re certainly not willing to give up before we get to that point.”
With strict border control and a strategy of elimination, New Zealand has avoided the worst of the pandemic, recording just 26 deaths from the disease.
Recent polling by The Spinoff shows that a majority of New Zealanders support the government’s approach. According to the poll, conducted in the days after New Zealand went into lockdown, 69 percent agreed that pursuing an elimination strategy is the right approach, compared to just 10 percent who disagreed. In response to the same question, but a month before the recent outbreak began, just 56 percent of respondents said they support the elimination strategy compared to 17 percent who said no.
In another poll by The Spinoff, published Monday, 72 percent of New Zealanders said they “strongly support” New Zealand’s decision to move to level four lockdown, while just 7 percent said they “strongly oppose.”
But there are now concerns that Delta may outpace New Zealand’s restrictions.
Hipkins, the COVID-19 minister, told TVNZ that Delta had changed the government’s thinking on elimination.
“We still want to try to drive COVID out as much as we can. That hasn’t changed. The reality though is that a virus that can be infectious within 24 hours of someone getting it – that changes the game considerably,” he said.
“It means that all of our existing protections start to look less adequate and less robust. As a result of that we are looking very closely at what more we can do there, but yes, it does raise some pretty big questions about what the long-term future of our plans are. At some point we will have to start to be more open in the future.”
Rodney Jones, an economist who advised the government on the Skegg report, which outlines New Zealand’s approach to reopening to the world, said it will be difficult for New Zealand to go back to the relative freedoms of the last 18 months.
“We’re not going back to what we had for the last 18 months. At what point do you say, ‘You had a fantastic 18 months, but in some ways the future we face is not going to be as good as that,’” he told the New Zealand Herald.
“We should have been at level 2. Once we had a certain number of Delta cases at MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine] that’s quite a different mindset you have to have. Our only defense becomes vaccinations.”
Hipkins said Tuesday saw a record of 80,000 vaccines administered, with 1.8 million New Zealanders (about 18 percent) now fully vaccinated.