New Zealand may never go back to having zero active Covid cases, the country’s top health officials have said, as the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread in spite of tough government restrictions.
New Zealand had largely eliminated Covid last year and had remained virus-free for months. It reported its first case since February on 17 August, prompting prime minister Jacinda Ardern to impose a strict lockdown. Yet there have been more than 1,000 cases including community spread since then.
“We may not get back to zero but the important thing is we are going to keep finding any infections and basically continue to contact trace, test and isolate people so that we stop the virus circulating in the community... that’s the aim,” Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health told Radio New Zealand on Wednesday.
Mr Bloomfield added that the government also aims to ramp up vaccinations. “Get that vaccination rate up over 90 per cent...that’s absolutely our new means whereby we will be able to get back to the freedoms we had,” he said.
However, at a press conference later in the day, Chris Hipkins, the Covid response minister, qualified Mr Bloomfield’s assessment. “We are not giving up on getting back down to zero. That is absolutely what we are striving for,” Mr Hipkins said.
On Wednesday, New Zealand reported 23 community cases and one border case, taking the total number of infections in the current outbreak to 1,108. Overall, since the pandemic began, there have been 3,763 cases of the coronavirus in New Zealand. The country has seen just 27 Covid deaths.
— Ministry of Health - Manatū Hauora (@minhealthnz) September 22, 2021
All the latest community cases were reported in New Zealand’s largest city Auckland. The city, which has reported around 20 cases a day for several days now, has been locked down for a month. Restrictions were slightly eased on Tuesday.
Though New Zealand was praised for reining in the spread of Covid, experts have expressed doubts about its “zero-Covid strategy”. The strategy involves imposing strict lockdowns and travel bans, and shutting down its borders. New Zealand nationals stuck abroad must apply to return through a scheme with severely limited numbers and undergo weeks of hotel quarantine.
Owing to its strategy of strict isolation, the nation has been more or less cut off from the rest of the world since March 2020. Last month, Ms Ardern announced that the country will allow quarantine-free entry to vaccinated travellers from low-risk nations only in early 2022.
The prime minister has also been criticised for a slow vaccination rollout. So far, 32 per cent of New Zealand’s 5 million population have had two shots of the coronavirus vaccine, according to The Guardian. Around 60 per cent have received one shot.