Ardern Defends Elimination Goal as New Zealand Outbreak Grows
(Bloomberg) -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defended her Covid-19 elimination strategy as she further extended a strict, nationwide lockdown to counter a worsening outbreak of the delta strain of the virus.
The entire country will remain at Level 4 restrictions, the highest level of lockdown, until midnight Aug. 27, Ardern told a news conference Monday in Wellington. That means the lockdown, initially put in place for three days, will now be in force for at least 10 days. Largest city Auckland, the epicenter of the outbreak, will remain at Level 4 for at least two weeks until midnight Aug. 31.
“We do need more information, we need more certainty,” Ardern said. “We don’t want to take any risks with delta.”
The delta variant is testing New Zealand’s elimination strategy because it is so much more transmissible than the first iteration of the virus and has a shorter incubation period, giving contact tracers less time to find and isolate positive cases before they become infectious. In neighboring Australia, which is also struggling to contain a delta outbreak, Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to abandon his Covid-Zero strategy once 70% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
Ardern said her government still plans to “stamp out” the current outbreak, which on Monday grew by 35 cases to a total of 107.
“For now, the elimination strategy is the right thing for New Zealand,” she said. “We can only look at what’s best for us and we know an elimination strategy has worked for New Zealand before. Going into next year, let’s continue to get advice. We are constantly learning, constantly adapting.”
Sydney has now been in lockdown for two months and the city’s six million residents are wearying of it as authorities implement tougher stay-at-home restrictions in some areas, including nightly curfews. There were 818 new cases detected in New South Wales state on Monday.
Melbourne is in its sixth lockdown and today recorded 71 new cases.
New Zealand and Australia have both had slow vaccine rollouts, leaving them vulnerable to delta. According to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, only 24% of all Australians and 20% of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated.
New Zealand has so far run a successful elimination strategy, defined as having zero tolerance for new cases. The South Pacific nation has recorded fewer than 2,700 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and just 26 deaths.
Ardern said early estimates suggest the transmission rate in the current outbreak -- the number of people that each case infects on average -- may be six or greater. It needs to be less than one to stamp the virus out, “so we have some way to go yet,” she said.
There were over 320 locations of interest and more than 13,000 contacts recorded. At this stage, cases have only been identified in Auckland and Wellington, but there are contacts all over the country, Ardern said.
The longer the lockdown remains in place, the bigger its impact will be on the economy. Last week the central bank delayed an interest-rate increase but insisted it remains on track to begin tightening monetary policy at its next meeting in October.
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