New Zealand announced on Sunday that it would impose its highest level of Covid restrictions across the country at midnight, after at least nine cases of the highly transmissible variant of Omicron were reported.
The cases, in the South Island town of Nelson, are the first Omicron infections detected outside of workers connected to the international airport or hotel quarantine facilities in the country. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said some of those infected attended a large wedding in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.
“This means Omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson-Marlborough area, if not elsewhere,” Ms Ardern told a news conference announcing the restrictions.
New Zealand was pursuing a zero Covid strategy until last year when a major outbreak of the Delta variant forced it to abandon those aspirations. But its numbers remained low. For the past two months, New Zealand has only reported a few dozen new cases per day.
It was unclear how the Nelson residents – members of a single multi-generational family – contracted the virus, although Ms Ardern said they had recently flown on the same Air New Zealand flight as a flight attendant who later tested positive with Omicron.
Ms Ardern said the new measures, classified as “red” under the country’s traffic light-based system, were “unlocked”.
“At Red, businesses remain open and you can do most things you normally do, including visiting family and friends and traveling across the country,” she said.
But those not vaccinated will face significant restrictions, including bans on worship services and businesses that serve food or drink. Schools will remain open, but all students from grade three will be required to wear masks. Events like weddings and funerals will be restricted to 100 people, all of whom must be vaccinated. (If unvaccinated people attend, the limit is reduced to 25.)
More than 93% of New Zealand’s population aged 12 and over is considered fully vaccinated against coronavirus, but only 23% have received a booster shot. The new restrictions are expected to continue for several weeks as more reminders are distributed.
On Friday, New Zealand announced that people who test positive for the virus should self-isolate for 14 days, up from 10. Their close contacts must now self-isolate for 10 days, up from a week.
The Omicron variant has brought the pandemic to some of the most remote parts of the world this week. Some Pacific island nations recorded their first cases, prompting the first pandemic lockdowns in Kiribati and Samoa.
At the press conference, Ms Ardern said her wedding to her partner, TV host Clarke Gayford, would not take place in the coming weeks as planned.
“I am no different, dare I say it, from thousands of other New Zealanders who have suffered far more devastating effects from the pandemic,” she said of the postponement. “The most heartbreaking is the inability to be with a loved one when they are gravely ill – this will far, far exceed any sadness I feel.”