New Zealand began a strict nationwide lockdown as it faces an outbreak of the delta variant, which on Wednesday was linked to the worsening Covid-19 crisis in neighboring Australia as cases in New South Wales rose to a record high of more than 600.
A further six cases have been identified in New Zealand, all connected to the single delta infection discovered Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters in Wellington. That was the first community case detected in the nation since February, with genome testing of the original case showing a clear link to the outbreak in Australia's New South Wales state.
The increase in New Zealand came as New South Wales recorded 633 new cases of the delta strain on Wednesday -- a 32% surge from the previous daily high recorded just two days earlier -- as the virus tears through Sydney, the country's largest city, despite nearly two months of lockdown. The restrictions have since been widened to the entire state.
"Every person who has the virus is spreading it to at least more than one person," New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters. "What the data is telling us in the last few days is that we haven't seen the worst of it. And the way that we stop this is by everybody staying at home."
The outbreaks on both sides of the Tasman Sea show how the so-called "Covid Zero" strategy embraced by both Australia and New Zealand -- both of which have relied on restricted international borders and rigorous testing to eliminate community transmission -- is under increasing strain.
The outbreak in Sydney is increasingly spreading into other areas of the country forcing more than half of Australia's 26 million people into lockdown. That includes Melbourne, which recorded 24 new cases on Wednesday, national capital Canberra, and more remote regions with high Indigenous populations. The surge in cases is increasing pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ramp up the nation's tardy vaccination roll-out.
Ardern said New Zealand officials are now reviewing the recent positive cases in arrivals from Australia who are in quarantine to identify a possible connection. All recent returnees from New South Wales must provide proof of a negative pre-departure test, and officials are preparing to contact all those returnees if a connection to the quarantined cases isn't established, she said.
Ardern put the nation into a three-day lockdown from midnight Tuesday, assuming the initial case -- an unvaccinated Auckland man in his 50s -- had the more infectious delta strain. Auckland and the nearby Coromandel region, where the man and his wife had visited, are facing a seven-day lockdown.
It is New Zealand's first nationwide closure since its initial pandemic response over a year ago, and it has the potential to re-write the country's economic and fiscal outlook. Some economists said the central bank will now hold off delivering a rate increase later Wednesday to gauge the the impact of the lockdown on growth, while the government has said it will resume programs to assist affected workers and businesses that could cost billions of dollars.
New Zealand has so far largely kept the virus out of the community, allowing its economy to recover quickly during the pandemic. But a slow vaccine rollout has left it vulnerable to another outbreak, particularly of the delta strain that is challenging virus containment efforts around the world.
Under so-called Alert Level 4, all schools, public venues and most businesses must close and people are urged to wear a face covering if they need to venture out. Only shops providing essential services such as groceries, gasoline and health products can stay open. Less than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated.
The health ministry said one of the new cases is a workmate of the original case, and the other three are contacts of the workmate. One of the three contacts is a fully vaccinated health professional employed at Auckland Hospital who had been working in recent days.
Hospital authorities have taken immediate action to shut down any potential spread, including testing all staff and patients on the ward the health professional worked on.