(Reuters) – New Zealand officials reported 27 new cases of the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant in Auckland on Saturday, as protestors took to the streets to rally against an almost two-month lockdown in the country’s biggest city.
Auckland’s 1.7 million residents are expecting a government decision on Monday about whether it will remain sealed off from the rest of New Zealand.
Daily case numbers have fluctuated between 8 and 45 in recent days, with the total from the outbreak in the city standing at 1,295 cases.
The Health Ministry said the fluctuation was expected “at this state in the outbreak.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern enforced what was meant to be a “short and sharp” nationwide lockdown in mid-August in response to the Auckland outbreak. But while the rest of the country has largely returned to normal life, the North Island city has remained in lockdown for about seven weeks.
Around 1,000 people rallied in the city, organised by Destiny Church, a Pentecostal fundamentalist Christian movement, demanded “freedom from lockdown”, New Zealand media reported. There were no immediate reports of violence or arrests.
Rallies were scheduled to also take place in the capital Wellington and Christchurch.
While New Zealand was among just a handful of countries to bring COVID-19 cases down to zero last year and largely stayed virus-free until the latest outbreak in August, difficulties in quashing the Delta variant have put Ardern’s elimination strategy in question.
Amid mounting pressure, Ardern has said her strategy was never to have zero cases, but to aggressively stamp out the virus.
She said strict lockdowns can end if 90% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, contrasting with the current 46%.
(Reporting and writing in Melbourne by Lidia Kelly; editing by Jane Wardell)