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New Zealand's largest city enters lockdown as variants from UK found

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a three-day lockdown for almost two million Auckland residents from Monday, with schools and non-essential businesses forced to close.

FILE: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a three-day lockdown for almost two million Auckland residents from Monday, with schools and non-essential businesses forced to close. Picture: AFP

AUCKLAND - Two coronavirus infections that prompted a snap lockdown of New Zealand's largest city on Monday have been revealed as the country's first cases of the variant discovered in the UK.

New Zealand's health ministry said tests had identified that the infections in Auckland were caused by the highly contagious variant first found in the UK, with no link to any other positive cases detected so far in New Zealand.

"This result reinforces the decision to take swift and robust action around the latest cases to detect and stamp out the possibility of any further transmission," the ministry said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered a three-day lockdown for almost two million Auckland residents from Monday, with schools and non-essential businesses forced to close.

No new infections had been detected beyond the initial cluster of three cases in one family, but health officials are rushing to find out how the virus entered the largely COVID-19-free country.

New Zealand director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said the initial focus was on the mother's workplace - a company providing laundry services to international flights - "because of its obvious connections to the border".

But he cautioned it was "too soon to rule in or out" any source of transmission and the woman had not been at work for eight days before testing positive.

'NOT AGAIN'

As tracing and testing ramped up, the streets of central Auckland were largely empty on the first day of the lockdown, with torrential rain helping to discourage people from venturing outdoors.

COVID-19 testing centres were busy, though, and there were long lines of vehicles stopped at police roadblocks as people tried to leave the city despite the lockdown.

The city has been ring-fenced from the rest of New Zealand, with travel in and out of the metropolis highly restricted for the next three days.

It was the first clampdown in nearly six months in the Pacific island nation, which has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, with just 25 deaths in a population of five million.

The remainder of the country was placed on a lower alert level, with people required to wear masks on public transport and gatherings limited to a maximum of 100 people.

"I know we all feel the same way when this happens – not again," Ardern said in announcing the measures on Sunday afternoon.

"But remember, we have been here before, that means we know how to get out of this – together."

Auckland spent more than two weeks in lockdown last August after a virus outbreak was linked to a worker handling imported frozen freight, but New Zealand has largely been enjoying relaxed restrictions for months.

Several cases of the COVID-19 variant discovered in South Africa were also detected in the city three weeks ago, before being traced back to a hotel where the people had completed quarantine after arriving from overseas.

That outbreak was successfully contained without a lockdown, even though the COVID-19 variant is also considered highly infectious.

Ardern has been widely praised for her management of the pandemic, with New Zealand recording fewer than 2,000 infections.

The country closed its borders and implemented a strict five-week lockdown in March and April last year, with occasional outbreaks since then being quickly contained.

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