New Zealand health authorities are rushing to find the source of a fresh coronavirus outbreak that has led to a renewed lockdown of its largest city.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is appealing for calm, as residents in Auckland nervously await the results of an urgent contact-tracing operation.
Four people in south Auckland – all members of the same family – have tested positive for the virus, it was confirmed on Tuesday night.
The family’s illness has promoted the return of emergency measures, with Ms Ardern delivering an unscheduled late-night media conference to declare the city would be locked down on Wednesday.
“One of the most important lessons we’ve learned from overseas is the need to go hard and go early and stamp out flare-ups to avoid the risk of wider outbreak,” Ms Ardern said.
“As a team we have also been here before. We know if we have a plan and stick to it we can work our way through very difficult and unknown situations.”
Many Australians had been looking to our neighbour as a gold standard in coronavirus responses, after it was thought NZ had stamped-out the illness with a tougher lockdown response and strict travel bans earlier in the pandemic.
Doctors had called for Victoria to implement a similar virus elimination plan to combat the ongoing second wave – and many rules imposed in Melbourne mirror those of NZ.
“Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews (and indeed all state and territory premiers) should explicitly declare ‘elimination’ as the goal,” they wrote in The Medical Journal of Australia in July.
It had been 102 days since a NZ coronavirus case had been detected outside of managed isolation or quarantine.
The sudden flare-up throws up questions about the efficacy of elimination strategies, and indeed reinforces advice from global health experts that we will have to learn to live with the virus and likely recurrent outbreaks.
“We have been saying for some weeks it was inevitable that New Zealand would get another case of community transmission,” NZ’s director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said.
“This is a tricky virus.”
Central to the idea to lockdown greater Auckland is to give authorities time to track the movements of the infected family. It will also slow the spread of the virus by anyone who might have contracted it from the four sick people.
One big question remains: Where did they get it from?
Victoria’s ‘mystery’ cases rise
Meanwhile, authorities are increasingly concerned with so-called mystery COVID-19 cases in Victoria, even as infection rates appear to stabilise.
The coronavirus-hit state’s seven-day case average is beginning to trend down as Stage 3 restrictions and the introduction of masks have an impact.
But – similarly to NZ’s conundrum – contact tracers in Victoria are still unable to determine the origin of recent cases.
The number of cases with no known source rose to 2903 on Tuesday, up 40 from the day before.
Of Victoria’s 331 new cases on Tuesday, 91 are linked to outbreaks or complex cases and 240 are under investigation.
How Australia is faring
NSW had 22 new infections on Tuesday, the highest daily increase of COVID-19 cases in NSW for almost four months
Health authorities are still working to trace the source of 17 locally acquired cases – the highest number in that category since late July.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state remained on high alert after its biggest daily growth of cases since April 16.
Back in Victoria, questions will continue on Wednesday about the state’s handling of hotel quarantine.
On Tuesday, Premier Daniel Andrews was grilled about his role in the Victoria’s botched hotel quarantine program, which is believed to be responsible for the state’s second wave of COVID-19.
Mr Andrews said the Australian Defence Force hadn’t been offered to guard the hotels at the time the program was introduced.
But federal Defence Minister Linda Reynolds insisted ADF support was offered to Victoria “on multiple occasions”.
A leaked video published by the Herald Sun shows Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions bureaucrats congratulating themselves for setting up the hotel quarantine program in less than 24 hours.
That department’s minister Martin Pakula, Treasurer Tim Pallas and controversial economist Gigi Foster are among those due to appear via video link before the COVID-19 inquiry on Wednesday.
How NZ will lockdown
From noon on Wednesday to midnight on Friday, Aucklanders must stay home unless they are conducting essential work or essential personal movement – such as supermarket shopping, health care or exercise.
The 60-hour “level three” lockdown will allow health officials to contact trace, isolate potential cases and conduct mass testing.
The rest of New Zealand will return to a “level two” lockdown for the same timeframe, with caps on gatherings and the return of social distancing.
“As disruptive it is, a strong and rapid health response remains the best long-term economic response,” Ms Ardern said.
The abrupt announcement of a short-term lockdown prompted Kiwis to head out to shops.
Hundreds of people began queuing outside supermarkets in Auckland within an hour of Ms Ardern’s announcement.