New Zealand’s deputy prime minister has said a “breach” in quarantine was responsible for the cluster of Covid-19 cases that has forced Auckland to re-enter strict lockdown for three days.
A total of 17 cases have now been linked to the fresh outbreak in New Zealand’s biggest city, the first time the disease has resurfaced in the community after more than 100 days of no locally transmitted cases.
The deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Winston Peters, told ABC news that a high-level source had told him a “breach in quarantine” had led to the community outbreak; information that would become public knowledge in a day or so.
Peters said he received the information from a trustworthy source minutes before speaking to the ABC, and had shared it with the television station before informing senior government officials, or the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
“I think there’s been a breach inside our quarantine system, and I think, when that comes out very shortly, in a matter of maybe less than a day, we’ll find out that was the case,” Peters told the ABC.
Peters went on to say he was unsure if the breach had occurred at a quarantine hotel, of which there are more than 30 around the country, but how and where it happened must be urgently investigated, and security tightened.
A spokesperson for Jacinda Ardern said the origin of the source case was still under investigation.
“No connection between managed isolation and these cases has been established at this point.” the spokesperson said.
Earlier in the day, Ardern aid it was “highly unlikely” that a cool store where an infected person worked was the source, though the facility had been swabbed for testing.
The most likely culprit was human-to-human transmission, she said.
More than 30,000 people, mostly returning New Zealanders, have quarantined for two weeks in government hotels on returning to the country.
In recent months there have been numerous reports of bored and frustrated people escaping over fences or through hedges, including for trips to the supermarket or the liquor store.
After four such cases, the police and army began regular patrols of the facilities in July, and 6-feet-high fences were erected outside all premises.
The government’s management of quarantine hotels has come under fire from the opposition National party, who have described their control of the process as “shambolic” and “amateur”.
But Peters said the hotels were better managed than quarantine hotels in Melbourne, where private security contractors hired to patrol guests were linked to outbreaks of Covid-19.
“In our case, we got the army in early enough to know that that wouldn’t have been the problem. But there’s been a breach, and we’ll find out in a matter of hours, or within a day,” Peters said.
Earlier, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director-general of health, said genome testing of the infected individuals had identified they were testing positive for a strain of Covid-19 associated with infection in the UK or Australia, which Peters said was further proof that the community outbreak came from a quarantine breach.
Bloomfield also announced that anyone testing positive for Covid-19 in the community would now be required to isolate in a government quarantine facility until they recovered.
This is a major departure from the previous rules that allowed infected New Zealanders to self-isolate at home, or in a hospital if they were seriously unwell.
On Friday, the prime minister will make a decision on whether to continue Auckland’s lockdown. New Zealand experts say an extension is unavoidable as the source case of the outbreak remains unidentified, and the number of active cases are continuing to grow by the day.