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New Zealand records four new COVID-19 cases and plunges back into lockdown

New Zealand’s remarkable COVID-19 run is over, with the country plunging back into lockdown after four members of the same family tested positive to the virus on Tuesday. 

The nation has been the envy of the world for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, with Monday marking 101 days without a single case of community transmission.

For three months, New Zealanders enjoyed the return of usual freedoms after an autumn lockdown proved effective in eliminating the deadly virus. 

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern scheduled an unexpected press conference for 9.15pm on Tuesday night and announced those freedoms would be put on hold. 

Stay-at-home orders will be implemented throughout Auckland for 72 hours from midday on Wednesday after the four new cases were identified in the city.

More than 1.6million people won’t be allowed to leave their homes except for essential reasons. 

The rest of the nation will enter a level two lockdown – mandating social distancing and placing caps on gathering sizes. 

Contact tracing is now underway among multiple workplaces across New Zealand, and close contacts of the confirmed cases have been ordered to self isolate.  

Ms Ardern is concerned about the origin of the outbreak, given the family have no links to overseas travellers or managed hotel isolation. 

An Auckland man in his 50s tested positive to coronavirus twice on Tuesday, five days after he first developed symptoms, sparking fears he could have spread the virus throughout his community.

The man’s partner and preschool aged child are also among the new confirmed cases.

‘We have not yet been able to determine the source of these cases, there is no known link to hotel quarantine,’ Ms Ardern said on Tuesday night. 

‘One of the most important lessons we have learned from overseas is to go hard at this… in line with our precautionary approach, we will be asking Aucklanders to take swift lockdown.’ 

Ms Ardern revealed authorities are ‘expecting to see more cases’ linked to the cluster. 

The new lockdown is part of the prime minister’s coronavirus ‘resurgence plan’, but could wreak havoc on the already struggling economy.

The Reserve Bank indicated back in May that just four weeks of stage four lockdown had wiped $10billion from the economy. 

Data released for the March 2020 quarter revealed the GDP slumped by almost two per cent. 

The COVID-19 lockdown started just four days before the report was finalised, meaning the true scale of the economic impact won’t be felt until the June quarter report is released on September 17. 

Early indications suggested the lockdown could wipe nine per cent from the nation’s GDP for 2020. 

While the country’s GDP has taken a major hit, unemployment levels actually dropped during the pandemic. 

New Zealand’s jobless rate in the second quarter of 2020 fell to about four per cent, from 4.2 per cent in the previous reporting period.

That figure was well below market expectations, which indicated the figure could be upwards of 5.8 per cent.

Some 111,000 Kiwis are currently unemployed, but there a fears another lockdown could cause that number to soar.  

The latest restrictions has ‘sent chills down the backs of businesses,’ Infometrics economist Brad Olsen said after the announcement.

‘Initial Infometrics estimates are that 28 per cent of Auckland’s workforce [or 250,000 people] could be unable to work at level three,’ he revealed.

‘Our immediate estimates suggest that spending Auckland could be $60 million to $69m lower throughout the three days of level three announced.’

The short lockdown could knock 0.2 percentage points off the GDP for the September quarter alone, his colleague Gareth Kiernan said.  

While Ms Ardern and her experts aimed for total elimination of the virus, some experts feared the economic cost wasn’t worth the potential gain.

Prior to the crisis, tourism was New Zealand’s biggest export industry, and contributed $16.2 billion annually – or 5.8 per cent – to the GDP.

Further indirect contributions topped $11.2 billion and made up a further four per cent of the GDP.  

The entire industry came to a screeching halt when Ms Ardern closed the borders to international travellers in March.   

‘You are asked to stay home in your bubble unless you are an essential worker,’ she said of the latest lockdown.  

All bars, restaurants and public services must close by midday on Wednesday, as gatherings of more than 10 are prohibited.

Schools will also close to all students other than children of essential workers. 

‘If you are in Auckland, we ask that you wear a mask when accessing essential services,’ Ms Ardern added.

‘While this initial three day lockdown will primarily effect the Auckland region, I am asking our team of five million to stay alert as well. We have defeated this virus before and can do it again.’ 

The rest of the nation will enter a three day level two lockdown.

Level two lockdown involves social distancing, mindful hand-washing regimes, staying home and seeking testing if unwell, and wearing a mask in areas where distancing isn’t possible. 

Ms Ardern would not indicate whether the lockdown would be extended if contact tracing and widespread testing do not identify the source of the current outbreak.

‘If we are not able to identify the source, we should be able to identify whether we have wider geographic spread,’ NZ’s Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said. 

‘We have been saying for some weeks that it was inevitable that New Zealand would get another case of community transmission.’ 

Authorities hope their swift action will help to manage the potential spread of the virus following the latest outbreak. 

‘We’ve had 102 days, and it was very easy to feel like New Zealand was out of the woods,’ Ms Ardern said on Tuesday night.

‘No country has gone as far as we did to not have a resurgence. But because we were the only ones, we knew we had to have a plan.

‘My request is to not be dispirited or disheartened… This is something we have prepared for.’ 

New Zealand first went into level four lockdown on March 25, acting swiftly once the threat of COVID-19 was present.

By April 27, the virus appeared somewhat under control and the lockdown was eased to level three. 

May 13 signalled the beginning of level two lockdown while most restrictions were entirely eased on June 9. 

Ms Ardern said she has no doubt New Zealand will defeat the virus for a second time. 

Following the announcement, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff called for calm within the community. 

‘I understand that people are probably feeling a little bit scared, a little angry and a little confused right now. None of us wanted to go back into a lockdown, but we always knew this was a very real possibility,’ he said.

‘I am urging Aucklanders to come together like we did last time to stamp out community transmission. Please remain calm, please do not panic buy and please follow the lockdown rules.’

Ms Ardern assured the public supermarkets would remain open and fully stocked during any lockdown, and urged people not to flock to stores. 

Despite her plea, supermarket stores across Auckland were inundated with panicked residents by the time the press conference finished. 

About 50 people queued out the front of Countdown in Westgate, northwest Auckland, by about 10pm on Tuesday night.

The store normally closes about 11pm, but shut its doors at 10.30pm following the influx of people.  

Countdown at Manukau and Johnsonville in Wellington are experiencing similar crowds of shoppers hoping to stock up on essentials. 

The cases bring into question New Zealand’s election day scheduled for September 19.

New Zealand First, the party of Deputy PM Winston Peters, suspended its campaign in the wake of the announcement. 

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