New Zealand Extends Auckland Lockdown, Plans Gradual Exit
(Bloomberg) -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern extended a lockdown in Auckland as the nation’s largest city continues to record new community cases of Covid-19, but presented a road-map for restrictions to be gradually eased over coming weeks in an apparent move away from her government’s elimination strategy.
Auckland will remain at Alert Level 3, meaning people cannot leave the city and should stay at home where possible, for at least another week, Ardern said Monday in Wellington. At the same time, she relaxed some rules around outdoor activities and said greater freedoms would be progressively restored when safe to do so.
It was “incredibly difficult” to completely stamp out the highly infectious delta strain of the virus, Ardern said.
“Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines, but now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things, we have more options,” she said. “There is good cause for us to feel optimistic about the future, but we cannot rush.”
Opposition parties have been calling for the government to abandon its elimination strategy, saying it’s clear that lockdowns don’t work with delta. The extension of Level 3 restrictions in Auckland follows news on Sunday that the outbreak has spread to the neighboring Waikato district, prompting a snap lockdown in fourth-largest city Hamilton and the seaside town of Raglan.
Ardern insisted the government will continue to take an aggressive approach to the virus.
“We are in a transition, but we are not ready to remove the really strong approach that we have taken with Covid-19,” she said. “Vaccines were always going to change the way we manage Covid-19 into the future, but our strategy has worked and will remain -- we want to control the virus, avoid cases and hospitalizations, enjoy our freedoms, and reconnect with the world,” she said.
Ardern presented a three-stage reopening for Auckland.
The first step takes effect from Tuesday, allowing two households to meet outdoors in a group of up to 10 people. Early childhood education will return for all, while schools are expected to reopen on Oct. 18.
The second step will see shops and public facilities such as swimming pools and zoos reopen. In the third step, higher risk settings such as restaurants and hairdressers will open their doors.
“We pause and assess as we go, we are not committing to a timeframe,” Ardern said.
The Green Party, an ally of Ardern’s Labour government, criticized the plan, saying it risks the safety vulnerable people.
“Elimination has protected thousands of lives in Aotearoa,” Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said. “We have to stay the course to keep everyone safe. Now is not the right time to change our approach, particularly when so many of our vulnerable communities are still at risk.”
New Zealand has experienced a tardy vaccine rollout -- about 79% of eligible people aged 12 and over have had one dose, but only around 48% are fully vaccinated and rates for are worse for lower socio-economic groups.
Health authorities reported 29 new infections today in Auckland, which is in its seventh week of lockdown. The rest of New Zealand remains at Alert Level 2, which requires mask-wearing in indoor public spaces and social distancing.
“This relaxing of restrictions will see more spread and more Covid cases in the community over the coming weeks,” said Professor Shaun Hendy, whose Covid-19 modeling has been used by the government. “The government will be hoping that any growth in
cases that result is slow enough that vaccination can get ahead of the outbreak, before it puts significant strain on our testing and tracing system, not to mention our hospitals.”
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