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August 12, 2020

Virus returns to New Zealand after 102 days


August 12, 2020

WELLINGTON: New Zealand’s dream run of 102 days without locally transmitted coronavirus ended on Tuesday, prompting a stay-at-home lockdown order for the country’s largest city.

After receiving global praise for successfully containing the virus, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said four cases had been detected in a single family in Auckland from an unknown source.

"After 102 days, we have our first cases of Covid-19 outside of managed isolation or quarantine facilities... we have also planned and prepared for it," Ardern said. As a result of the infections, mobile phones nationwide received an emergency text that set off blaring alerts and said "if you are in Auckland STAY HOME... and SAVE LIVES".

Until Tuesday, the World Health Organisation had hailed New Zealand as an example to others for having "successfully eliminated community transmission". It has reported just 22 deaths in a population of five million and had previously held off community transmission since May 1.

Kiwis had enjoyed a near-normal lifestyle with no social distancing and spectators allowed at sports and cultural events, although borders were strictly controlled. But health authorities had repeatedly warned people not to be complacent and said a second wave of infections was "inevitable".

Ardern said she understood the disappointment of New Zealanders who believed the virus had been quashed after a strict seven-week lockdown earlier this year. "It was perhaps easy to feel New Zealand was out of the woods, my request is not to feel dispirited or disheartened," she said.

"Of all the countries in the world, New Zealand has gone the longest without a resurgence -- but because of that we always knew we had to plan, and we’ve done that." Auckland will be locked down for at least three days from Wednesday and some social distancing restrictions will be reintroduced in the rest of the country.

Health director-general Ashley Bloomfield was confident the measures would again contain the spread of a "tricky" disease that had thwarted authorities elsewhere. "We cannot afford to let this virus spread," he said.

Ardern acknowledged her announcement had prompted panic buying at New Zealand supermarkets but urged shoppers to calm down. "There’s no need, they’re an essential service," she said.

Ardern downplayed any impact on a national election scheduled to be held on September 19, although she said campaigning over the next few days would not take place in Auckland. Leader of the centre-right National Party, Judith Collins, said she had suspended all campaigning engagements for Wednesday and had questions for the government.

"This will come as a shock to all New Zealanders... (we) will be seeking an explanation and clear answers about the situation we now find ourselves in," she said.Meanwhile, Russia claimed on Tuesday it has developed the world’s first vaccine offering "sustainable immunity" against the coronavirus, as the pandemic marked another bleak milestone with 20 million infections globally.

Western scientists have raised concerns about the speed with which Russia has developed vaccines, suggesting that researchers might be cutting corners. According to an AFP tally, the number of confirmed infections worldwide has passed 20.1 million, with almost 737,000 deaths, with that number expected to surpass 750,000 within days.

France’s prime minister said on Tuesday he wanted more masks worn in public places to prevent "a high risk of epidemic resumption" as health authorities warned coronavirus circulation was picking up again.

Visiting the southern city of Montpellier, Jean Castex said the country must act collectively, and "vigorously" to beat back a pandemic that has already claimed more than 30,300 lives in France.

To this end, he will ask local authorities "to extend as far as possible the obligation to wear masks in public spaces." Local authorities have been given the legal authority to impose mask-wearing on citizens.

Masks are already obligatory nationwide on public transport and in enclosed spaces such as shops, banks and government offices. Some cities and towns have also made them compulsory in certain outdoor spaces, such as along the banks of the Seine River in Paris and around its main tourist hotspots.

Castex said that unless French people acted individually and collectively, "we expose ourselves to a high risk of epidemic resumption that will be difficult to control. "It will once again put pressure on... hospital services, it will also place pressure on our economy, our education system, our collective and cultural life," he said after taking part in a meeting of President Emmanuel Macron’s defence council of senior ministers to discuss the virus.

He also announced that a ban on public gatherings of more than 5,000 people, such as sporting events or concerts, will now run until October 30 and not be lifted at the end of this month as originally planned.

Over the weekend, some 10,000 people flouted the ban to gather for an illegal rave party on a remote mountain plateau in France’s least populated department, the Lozere, sparking anger from locals so far spared the worst of the outbreak.

France’s health ministry said Monday that 10,800 new coronavirus cases had been identified in the past week, and warned that "circulation of the virus is intensifying, notably among young people and in certain regions such as the metropolitan areas of Paris and Marseille." It said mask wearing was "a gesture of common sense" in crowded places and when a safe physical distance between people cannot be observed.