New Zealand’s largest city has announced a three-day lockdown following the discovery of three unexplained coronavirus cases in the community.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the move for Auckland after an urgent meeting with her cabinet.
She said they decided to take a cautious approach until they found out more about the outbreak, including whether the cases were of the more contagious variants.
The rest of New Zealand will also be placed under heightened restrictions but will not go into lockdown, Ms Ardern said.
The lockdown is the first in New Zealand in six months and represents a significant setback in the nation’s largely successful efforts to control COVID-19.
New Zealand had successfully stamped out community spread, and many people elsewhere in the world looked on in envy as New Zealanders went back to work and began attending concerts and sporting events without the need to wear masks or take other precautions.
Indeed, Ms Ardern had planned to attend the Big Gay Out on Sunday, an Auckland festival that attracts tens of thousands of people. She ended up cancelling those plans and returning to Wellington to manage the coronavirus outbreak.
“I’m asking New Zealanders to continue to be strong and to be kind,” Ms Ardern said at a press conference on Sunday.
“I know we all feel the same way when this happens. We all get that sense of ‘not again’. But remember, we have been here before and that means we know how to get out of this again, and that is together.”
New Zealand’s greatest vulnerability has been at the border.
New cases are regularly caught among returning travellers, all of whom are required to spend two weeks in quarantine.
Despite precautions, there have been several times when the virus has come across the border before being controlled again, and officials are trying to determine whether that has happened again.
In January, New Zealand reported its first community COVID case in more than two months, when the virus was detected in a 56-year-old woman who had recently returned from Europe.
In this latest case, an Auckland mother, father and daughter caught the disease.
Officials said the mother works at a catering company that does laundry for airlines, and officials are investigating whether there is a link to infected passengers. The woman had not been going aboard the planes herself, officials said.
“We are gathering all of the facts as quickly as we can, and the system that served us so well in the past is really gearing up to do so again,” said COVID-19 response minister Chris Hipkins.
He described the cases as new and active. He said scientists are carrying out genome sequencing to see whether they are of new variants, and also to see whether they match with any infected passengers.
“New Zealand has kept COVID-19 contained better than almost any other country,” Mr Hipkins said. “But as we have kept saying, there is no such thing as no risk.”
New Zealand, with a population of five million, has reported a total of just more than 2,300 cases and 25 deaths since the pandemic started.