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Covid: New Zealand reports jump in cases as opposition calls for opening up

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

New Zealand’s daily Covid cases have jumped sharply to 45 – more than five times the previous day’s number. The rise comes after several days of about 12 cases a day, and around a week after the Auckland region lifted its strictest lockdown restrictions.

“This is a big number. It’s a sobering number. I don’t think anybody who’s involved in this process would be celebrating a number like the one we’re seeing today,” said the Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins.

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“But the fact that such a significant proportion of those are known contacts or household contacts does point a little bit to the nature of this particular outbreak that we’re now dealing with in the way it’s concentrated in larger households.”

The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said a number of the cases had been expected by health officials – much of Auckland’s outbreak is spreading through large family groups. Thirty-three of the new cases were known household or close contacts of existing cases. Of these, 26 were household contacts, and 12 came from two households. Twelve cases were unlinked.

Officials urged people to continue following level 3 rules and get tested. “We’ve still got to hold our nerve here,” Hipkins said. “We’re still aiming to run this into the ground.”

The government lifted some restrictions in Auckland last week after a month of lockdown, in what experts called a “gamble” and a “calculated risk”. The changes saw an estimated 300,000 additional people return to work in their city workplaces.

Bloomfield said: “Some of our cases today may have been working in essential or permitted businesses … this emphasises the importance of everyone in Auckland continuing to abide by level 3 measures. They are there for a reason.” Asked if New Zealand would have seen this number of cases under level 4, Hipkins said “possibly”.

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The leap in cases comes as the government faces its first major challenge from opposition parties on the elimination strategy.

New Zealand’s largest opposition party unveiled its Covid plan on Wednesday, which would see lockdowns permanently scrapped once 70-75% of the eligible population is vaccinated, and quarantine-free travel allowed at 85% for those who are fully vaccinated.

The National party’s leader, Judith Collins, said elimination had worked while vaccines were under development, but now the plan must change. “If adopted, National’s plan means Kiwis overseas could come home to spend this Christmas with loved ones or take an overseas holiday for new year’s,” Collins said.

Collins said the prime minister had not offered a specific vaccine target while “ministers throw around numbers willy-nilly”. She also took aim at the government’s proposed trial that would allow 150 business people to return and isolate at home before Christmas: “It’s an insult.”

The National party says its three-pillar plan has been “thoroughly vetted” by experts, but it has declined to publicly name those experts.

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The first pillar of the plan includes 10 steps for “supercharging” vaccination rates, going door-to-door to reach vulnerable communities, and boosting testing measures and health service capacity. The second pillar aims to end lockdowns, once vaccination reaches 70-75%.

National’s Covid-19 response spokesperson, Chris Bishop, said the third pillar was about reconnecting New Zealand back to the world, with a system that would create different isolation requirements for returnees, depending on the country of origin’s Covid-19 status.

Just prior to the Delta outbreak, the government announced its border reopening strategy, which also takes into account the risk level of the countries people are returning from. That plan is under review after the outbreak.

Meanwhile thousands of New Zealanders overseas are struggling to book a spot in managed isolation. On Tuesday 3,800 places were released and snapped up in seconds, leaving tens of thousands of others on hold for the next round, due in the coming weeks.

Bishop said the government was running “a lottery in human misery every week”, adding that the party was advocating for a “vigorous suppression” method, over elimination, to allow people to return.

“Delta’s here, it’s gonna come back, there will be Covid in the community and we need to reopen, whilst making sure we mitigate the impacts of Covid and have a low number of cases.”

Hipkins said he had not looked at National’s plan in detail but it was “clear the party wants to throw open the borders” and allow hundreds of thousands of people to come into the country. “Therefore one can conclude that the biggest promise they are making at the moment is they are willing for Kiwis to get Covid for Christmas.”

Hipkins said the party had not provided any modelling for the number of cases it would be willing to tolerate, nor what it would do if there were significant case numbers in the community.

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