New Zealand to announce decision on coronavirus lockdown extension

WELLINGTON, Aug 13 (Reuters) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is due to announce on Friday whether a lockdown in the country’s biggest city will be eased or extended, as officials scramble to contain a coronavirus outbreak.

Ardern put Auckland, home to about 1.7 million people, into lockdown on Wednesday, just hours after a four new COVID-19 cases were discovered in a family living in the city. She also reinstated social distancing measures across the country.

A further 13 cases have since been confirmed and linked to the Auckland family, the first cases in the Pacific island nation in more than three months, raising some doubts over Ardern’s eradication strategy for the pandemic as she heads into a general election next month.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said on Friday the origin of the outbreak was still under investigation, countering comments from Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters late on Thursday that a quarantine facility breach had been identified as the source.

However, Hipkins said genome testing of the strain of COVID-19 contracted by the Auckland family suggested it had originated in Britain or Australia.

“People talking about the border, even that’s premature at this point, we simply do not have enough information to make even an educated guess about where this may have come from,” Hipkins told broadcaster 1NEWS.

Health officials said earlier in the week they were looking into the “low possibility” the virus was imported on frozen food packages. Ten of the new casess have been linked to a cool store that takes imported frozen goods from overseas.

Some prominent local health experts suggested it was more likely the virus had been quietly spreading in Auckland for weeks, despite Ardern’s efforts to eradicate it with an initial five-week hard lockdown.

The main opposition National Party has blasted the government, saying it failed to secure quarantine facilities and accusing it of withholding information about the latest outbreak.

New Zealanders celebrated when Ardern appeared to eliminate community transmission of the coronavirus with the earlier hard lockdown that forced almost everyone to stay at home.

But opinion is divided on whether the 40-year-old leader should repeat that strategy, given its huge economic cost and mounting global evidence that the virus cannot be permanently suppressed.

Ardern is expected to announce her decision on lockdown measures at 1730 local time (0530 GMT) after meeting with her cabinet and the release of the daily infection numbers. She has said she will make a decision by Sunday on whether to postpone the Sept. 19 election. (Reporting by Praveen Menon; editing by Jane Wardell)