New Zealand’s mysterious new COVID outbreak is growing

New Zealand recorded 12 new confirmed local cases of the coronavirus on Friday including some outside the largest city Auckland, as the government attempts to stamp out the nation’s first outbreak in more than three months.

The cluster of infections that began in Auckland earlier this week has grown to 30, including a probable case, and 2 in the North Island town of Tokoroa, Health Director-General Ashley Bloomfield told reporters in Wellington.

New Zealand now has 48 active cases, which includes 18 people who tested positive during the 14-day quarantine that’s mandatory for anyone returning to the country from overseas.

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After eradicating community transmission, New Zealand’s 102-day Covid-free run ended this week when an initial four new cases were detected in an Auckland household, from a yet-to-be determined source. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded to the fresh outbreak by putting Auckland, a city of 1.6 million people and a hub of commerce, into a three day lockdown that is scheduled to end later Friday. Social distancing rules and limits on gatherings have also been reimposed on the rest of the country.

Ardern will announce whether the lockdown will be extended or escalated following a cabinet meeting later today.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said all of the local cases were connected to the Auckland outbreak but warned that “we are not out of the woods yet.”

The current advice is that the health risk in Tokoroa remains low because the two infected people there are linked with the Auckland outbreak, but he is yet to receive the complete advice he will present to his cabinet colleagues.

Businesses and investors are wary that an extension of the restrictions would stall the economic recovery that has been underway since a seven-week nationwide lockdown that ended in mid-May. The first lockdown — a so-called alert level 4 — saw manufacturing and construction closed, tipping New Zealand into recession for the first time in 10 years. Currently Auckland is in a level 3 lockdown with people urged to stay home and consumer-facing businesses shut, while the rest of the country is at level 2.

“If this is just a scare and the alert levels are raised only briefly, then the economic implications are small,” said Dominick Stephens, chief New Zealand economist at Westpac in Auckland. “If New Zealand goes into another strict level 4 lockdown, the economic implications would be more severe.”

Still, international experience shows that losing control of the virus would be much more damaging to the economy, he said.

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