Covid-19: Australia suspends travel bubble over latest NZ outbreak

Quarantine-free travel to larger neighbour halted as Auckland enters lockdown

New Zealand minister for Covid-19 response Chris Hipkins speaks to the media at the weekend with prime minister Jacinda Ardern beside him, in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Dave Rowland/Getty

New Zealand minister for Covid-19 response Chris Hipkins speaks to the media at the weekend with prime minister Jacinda Ardern beside him, in Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Dave Rowland/Getty

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Australia has suspended quarantine-free travel with neighbouring New Zealand after three new community cases of Covid-19 were detected in Auckland over the weekend.

New Zealand said on Sunday it was locking down its largest city after new cases emerged in the country, which has been credited with virtually eliminating the virus within its borders.

Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, convened an urgent meeting late on Sunday and it was decided that all flights originating in New Zealand would be classified as “Red Zone” flights for an initial period of 72 hours from Monday.

“As a result of this, all people arriving on such flights originating within this three-day period will need to go into 14 days of supervised hotel quarantine,” Australia’s Department of Health said on its website.

The travel bubble had been set up so that New Zealanders could get to Australia without needing to spend 14 days in a hotel, although quarantine was mandatory for people travelling in the other direction.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said that genomic sequencing of the latest Covid-19 community cases showed they were the variant B1.1.7, the more transmissible variant first detected in the UK.

“We were absolutely right to make the decision to be extra cautious because we assumed it was going to be one of the more transmissible variants,” Ms Ardern said in a Facebook Live post.

The source of the new cases is still unknown as results do not link directly to any other positive cases detected in New Zealand to date.

Ms Ardern raised restrictions in Auckland to Level 3 through Wednesday, shutting public venues and prohibiting gatherings outside homes, except for weddings and funerals of up to 10 people. Schools will stay open for children of essential workers but others were asked to stay home.

The Covid-19 alert for the rest of the country was raised to Level 2, with all gatherings limited to 100 people, including at restaurants and cafes.

First in six months

The lockdown is the first in New Zealand in six months and represents a significant setback in the nation’s largely successful efforts to control the virus.

New Zealand had successfully stamped out community spread, and many people elsewhere in the world looked on in envy as New Zealanders went back to work and began attending concerts and sporting events without the need to wear masks or take other precautions.

Indeed, Ms Ardern had planned to attend the Big Gay Out on Sunday, an Auckland festival that celebrates the rainbow community and attracts tens of thousands of people. She ended up cancelling those plans and returning to Wellington to manage the outbreak.

“I’m asking New Zealanders to continue to be strong and to be kind,” Ms Ardern said at a hastily arranged press conference on Sunday evening. “I know we all feel the same way when this happens. We all get that sense of ‘not again’. But remember, we have been here before and that means we know how to get out of this again, and that is together.”

New Zealand’s greatest vulnerability has been at the border.

Returning travellers

New cases are regularly caught among returning travellers, all of whom are required to spend two weeks in quarantine. Despite precautions, there have been several times when the virus has leaked out from the border before being controlled again, and officials are trying to determine whether that has happened again this time.

In the latest case, an Auckland mother, father and daughter caught the disease. Officials said the mother works at a catering company that does laundry for airlines, and officials are investigating whether there is a link to infected passengers. Officials said the woman had not been going aboard the planes herself.

“We are gathering all of the facts as quickly as we can, and the system that served us so well in the past is really gearing up to do so again,” said Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins.

New Zealand, with a population of 5 million, has reported a total of just more than 2,300 cases and 25 deaths since the pandemic started. – PA/Reuters