New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lifted a nationwide lockdown outside largest city Auckland but said it is too soon to declare victory over a delta coronavirus outbreak.
Three weeks after it went into lockdown, the country will move to Alert Level 2 at midnight Tuesday, allowing people to return to work and school, Ardern told a news conference Monday in Wellington. But Auckland, the epicenter of the outbreak, will remain at Level 4 — the highest level of restrictions — for at least one more week, she said.
“Moving to Level 2 is progress and it is positive, but it comes with a warning,” Ardern said. “The job is not done. We’re within sight of elimination but we cannot drop the ball.”
New Zealand appears on track to once again eliminate Covid-19 from the community after the lockdown reduced new case numbers to just 20 a day. If it succeeds, it will be a rare victory over the highly infectious delta strain of the virus. In neighboring Australia, state governments in New South Wales and Victoria have conceded they no longer expect to eliminate delta as case numbers continue to grow despite prolonged lockdowns.
Ardern said caution is still warranted, and Level 2 restrictions have been tightened to reflect the risks associated with delta.
New Zealanders will need to wear masks in most public venues at Level 2, and there will be a limit of 50 people for indoor gatherings including hospitality settings. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 100, and all attendees must be recorded to help with contact tracing if needed.
Ardern put the country into lockdown last month after just one infection had been discovered in the community. The outbreak has since grown to a total of 821 cases, of which 704 remain active. The vast majority are in Auckland, which continues to record new cases each day.
A border around Auckland will be policed to ensure those traveling to and from the city for essential work don’t spread the virus to other regions.
“Our case numbers at present are coming down but we continue to see persistent cases attached to the current outbreak,” Ardern said. “Some of this is to be expected as we see close contacts and family members test positive, but some of these are still what we call unlinked or mystery cases. That’s a cause for concern.”