New Zealand extends virus lockdown; Australia eyes vaccines

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 06: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during her post-Cabinet media update at Parliament on April 6, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. New Zealand has been in lockdown since Thursday 26 March following tough restrictions imposed by the government to stop the spread of COVID-19 across the country. A State of National Emergency is in place along with an Epidemic Notice to help ensure the continuity of essential Government business. Under the COVID-19 Alert Level Four measures, all non-essential businesses are closed, including bars, restaurants, cinemas and playgrounds. Schools are closed and all indoor and outdoor events are banned. Essential services will remain open, including supermarkets and pharmacies. Lockdown measures are expected to remain in place for around four weeks, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warning there will be zero tolerance for people ignoring the restrictions, with police able to enforce them if required. (Photo by Mark Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images via CNN)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand’s government on Monday said it will extend a strict nationwide lockdown until at least Friday as it tries to extinguish a growing coronavirus outbreak.

The news came as health authorities reported 35 new local infections of the fast-spreading delta variant, the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases in New Zealand since April last year.

First discovered last week, the outbreak has grown to 107 cases. But health authorities say they’ve found links among most of those cases, giving them hope they can quash the outbreak. Authorities said they’ve tested about 3% of the nation’s entire population over the past six days.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the lockdown will continue until at least the end of the month in Auckland, where most of the cases have been found.

“We do need more information. We need more certainty. We don’t want to take any risks with delta,” Ardern said. “If the world has taught us anything, it is to be cautious with this variant of COVID-19.”

Ardern said modeling suggested the outbreak should peak in a few days’ time, and then decline.

One of the reasons lockdowns are considered essential in New Zealand in that inoculation rates remain low, with only about 20% of people fully vaccinated. The strict lockdown means most people must remain at home, leaving only to buy groceries or medicine, or to exercise.

Ardern also announced that the government has decided to suspend regular Parliament sessions for a week, a move that drew criticism from opposition lawmakers.

“At a time when New Zealanders have the harshest lockdown in the world and have lost our freedoms because of the government’s failure to vaccinate and secure the border, this move by Jacinda Ardern is unfathomable,” said Judith Collins, the leader of the opposition.

While New Zealand was maintaining its strategy of trying to wipe out the virus completely through lockdowns, neighboring Australia appeared to have conceded that lockdowns would not be able to eliminate the delta variant entirely and could only slow its spread.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said lockdowns are “not a sustainable way to live in this country.” He said states must open their borders once vaccination rates reach 80% of the population aged 16 years and older.

His remarks came as an outbreak in Sydney grew by more than 800 cases, near record levels. Health authorities said an outbreak centered in Melbourne also grew by 71 cases and another in the capital, Canberra, grew by 16 cases. All three cities remained in lockdown.

But in Western Australia, where there are no community infections, Premier Mark McGowan said his government wouldn’t reopen at the 80% vaccination level if it meant reintroducing the virus.

About 24% of Australians are fully vaccinated.