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New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern extends coronavirus lockdown by 12 days as first outbreak for 102 days grows to 30 people

NEW ZEALAND's largest city, Auckland, will remain in coronavirus lockdown for another 12 days until August 26.

PM Jacinda Ardern's announcement came as Australia's health boss slammed the country's decision to lift restrictions too soon after going 102 days without infections.

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The outbreak has grown to 30 people and extended beyond the coastal city of Auckland - home to 1.7million people in the North Island - for the first time.

The current Level 3 restrictions in Auckland requiring people to mostly remain at home, and level 2 restrictions for the rest of the country, are not as severe as the five-week level 4 shutdown Ardern imposed earlier in the year.

Officials are investigating the possibility the virus could have survived from abroad on chilled or frozen food boxes and then infected workers in New Zealand - but it's a scenario they consider unlikely.

Ardern said extending Auckland's lockdown, which began Wednesday, would give authorities time to get a handle on the virus cluster and isolate those infected.

The PM warned: "It will grow before it slows. And it may continue to be linked to schools, churches and social gatherings, as it has done to date.

"In keeping with our cautionary approach and New Zealand's philosophy of going hard and going early, today, cabinet has agreed to maintain our current settings for an additional 12 days, bringing us to a full two weeks in total."

She added: "Together, we have got rid of Covid before.

"We have kept it out for 102 days - longer than any other country.

"We have been world-leading in our Covid response, with the result that many lives were saved and our economy was getting going faster than almost anywhere else.

"We can do all of that again."

'DANGEROUS' DECISION

But Australia's acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly slated NZ for returning to normality too soon, reports the NZ Herald.

Criticising the decision to allow Kiwis to return to mass gatherings and not socially distance, he told an Australian Senate inquiry: "That is just very dangerous.

"To go right back to a pre-Covid state makes them extremely vulnerable.

"What has happened in New Zealand is a real demonstration of why we have to remain cautious [in Australia]."

Health authorities in NZ believe the virus must have been reintroduced from overseas.

But genome testing hasn't found a link with any of the quarantined travellers.

That has prompted authorities to investigate whether shipping workers were a source, after several employees at a food storage facility were infected.

The cluster was first discovered on Tuesday, in a family in Auckland. Since then, officials have identified a total of 29 cases, all linked to the same cluster.

Ardern said genome sequencing disproved the theory from some health experts that the virus could have been quietly moving through community since the original outbreak.

"This suggests this is not a case of the virus being dormant or of a burning ember in our community," she said. "It appears to be new to New Zealand."

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said earlier that genome testing suggested the new virus outbreak had originated in Britain or Australia.

The earliest case authorities have identified to date is a worker at an Auckland-based cool store owned US-based Americold Realty Trust, who became ill around July 31.

Almost a dozen other infections have been directly linked to the facility.

Officials are looking at the possibility that workers on a freight ship or at the port may have spread the infections.

However there are physical distancing measures at those sites and orders preventing ship workers from going onshore.

The only known infections outside Auckland are two people in the central North Island town of Tokoroa, who were visited by infected family members from Auckland.

Officials said they thought the chances were low the virus would spread further in Tokoroa.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said they were doing rigorous testing at Auckland's port.

Bloomfield said they completed a record of more than 15,000 tests on Thursday and were getting a clearer picture of the outbreak.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins added: "All of the cases so far are connected. They are all part of one Auckland-based cluster, and that is good news."

The outbreak has cast doubt on whether NZ's general election will go ahead as planned next month and has halted political campaigning.

Ardern said she would decide by Sunday on whether to delay the election, which she can by up to about two months under New Zealand law.

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