New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said her government will reintroduce tough Covid-19 restrictions — forcing her to cancel her own wedding plans — as Asia-Pacific countries battle to stop the spread of the Omicron variant.
The measures, which include stricter mask wearing and social-distancing rules, follow an outbreak of nine cases among a family that travelled between Auckland and the South Island to attend a wedding. New Zealand has been closed to foreign non-residents since March 2020.
The restrictions in New Zealand and other Asia-Pacific countries stand in contrast to the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose premiership is under threat from a Covid-19 party scandal, said last week that “Plan B” pandemic measures, such as wearing masks on public transport, would be phased out.
“Our strategy is to slow the spread of Omicron down,” said Ardern. New Zealand was one of the last countries to abandon attempts to eliminate the virus by closing borders and imposing strict lockdowns — leaving China as the only large country still pursuing such a strategy.
The latest restrictions hit Ardern personally as she cancelled her own wedding, which was expected to take place in the coming weeks. “Such is life,” she said, noting that thousands of New Zealanders had suffered far more devastating experiences during the pandemic.
In neighbouring Australia, which has struggled to source enough tests to cope with the rapid spread of Omicron, the daily rate of positive cases rose to almost 90,000 last week.
In Hong Kong, more than 4,000 residents in two public housing blocks have been put into an unprecedented five-day mandatory lockdown following what local pandemic advisers deemed a “superspreader” event at one of the buildings.
About 170 people in the two buildings have tested positive for coronavirus, according to officials, after a cleaner who contracted the Omicron variant was believed to have seeded an outbreak.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said the government was unlikely to lift restrictions ahead of Chinese new year holidays. She defended the drastic measures as a pro-Beijing newspaper in the city warned her government that containing the outbreak was a matter of “national safety”.
Beijing also faces a growing outbreak as China’s capital city recorded another nine infections on Sunday, bringing the number of cases reported since January 15 to 43. The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are set to begin in less than two weeks.
In Taiwan, health authorities have reinforced tracking and tracing measures and asked companies to urge factory workers to get fully vaccinated as the local spread of Omicron has accelerated.
On Saturday, the number of domestically-transmitted cases jumped to 82 as tests among about 1,000 workers in an electronics factory turned up 60 positives. On Sunday, the government reported another 52 domestically-transmitted cases.
Apart from a relatively small outbreak in May last year, the country has largely avoided community spread and has reported just 18,327 infections and 851 deaths from Covid-19.
Japan is also struggling with what has become the country’s sixth wave of infections, with its daily Covid-19 cases topping 50,000 on Saturday, setting a new record for five consecutive days.
More governors are asking the central government to place their prefectures under a quasi state of emergency to avoid overwhelming the medical system. The government is set to extend the measure to a majority of 47 prefectures as early as Tuesday.