New Zealand, which has been praised for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, put its largest city on lockdown on Wednesday after the country recorded its first cases of COVID-19 in more than three months.
Four members of an Auckland family have tested positive, prompting Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to reimpose tough restrictions in the city and social distancing measures across the country until at least Friday.
To complicate the situation, health officials said two members of the infected family had visited tourist sites in the city of Rotorua, about 140 km southwest of Auckland, increasing the number of people who may have been able to be potentially exposed. The family had not traveled abroad.
“As we have seen in other countries where a resurgence is occurring, it is extremely important to act early,” said chief health officer Ashley Bloomfield.
“We have done it before and we can do it again,” he added.
Residents of Auckland, a city of about 1.7 million people, have had very little time to prepare for the return to Level 3 restrictions, forcing people to stay home, work from home and , if possible, to wear masks when going out. All schools, public facilities, bars, restaurants and shops have also been closed.
Police set up roadblocks to deter a mass exodus from Auckland, as supermarkets rationed the sale of some basic items amid a rush to sell shelves. Long queues have formed at the city’s COVID-19 testing centers.
Although the source of the virus is unknown, health officials are investigating whether the virus may have been imported by freight.
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New Zealand, which holds a national election in mid-September, has been successful in controlling the virus throughout the pandemic, recording 1,225 confirmed cases and 22 deaths.
Despite having a small population, with less than 5 million people, New Zealand has recorded only 4.56 deaths per million population, compared to nearly 500 per million in the United States., according to figures from the University of Oxford.
In June, Ardern said she had “done a little dancing” to celebrate the news that New Zealand had no active cases of COVID-19.
While the re-emergence of the virus after 102 days without local transmission is a setback for the nation’s efforts to contain the pandemic, Ardern remained optimistic.
“If we get our immediate response in this critical phase, we have the opportunity to reduce the time that we will have these heavier restrictions, and that’s a lesson we’ve all learned together,” Arden said, adding the news restrictions can be extremely frustrating for many people.
Meanwhile, neighboring Australia on Wednesday recorded its deadliest day in the coronavirus pandemic and the largest daily increase in infections in three days.
A cluster of infections in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, pushed authorities last week to impose a nighttime curfew, tighten restrictions on the daily movement of people and order the closure of a much of the state economy.
Officials in the country’s remote Northern Territory said on Tuesday they would continue to enforce strict border controls until at least 2022.
“If you can, cancel your Christmas vacation plans and stay here in the Northern Territory,” Chief Territory Minister Michael Gunner told Australian broadcaster ABC News.
Globally, the number of COVID-19 cases has now exceeded 20 million, with the United States, Brazil and India accounting for more than half, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The death toll worldwide is over 740,000 people.
The virus has wreaked havoc on the global economy, with the monetary effects of the pandemic leaving hundreds of thousands of people around the world out of work or relying on government leave programs.
The largest contraction reported by a large economy to date was announced in the UK on Wednesday.
Local officials said the UK economy shrank a record 20.4% between April and June as it entered recession for the first time in 11 years.
“Today’s figures show that the hard times are here,” Chancellor Rishi Sunak told UK broadcaster Sky News, which, like NBC News, is owned by Comcast. “Hundreds of thousands of people have already lost their jobs and many more will.”
Britain has suffered the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe with more than 46,000 deaths to date.
Reuters contributed to this report.