Omicron has breached New Zealand’s borders and started spreading in the community, Jacinda Ardern has said, meaning the entire country will be placed on the highest level of restrictions.
The outbreak has also forced the prime minister to cancel her wedding to Clarke Gayford, which was due to take place in the coming weeks at Gisborne on the North Island’s eastern coast.
Ardern said on Sunday the country would try to slow the spread of Omicron but it was expected New Zealand would reach 1,000 cases a day in the coming weeks and thousands a day after that. New Zealand has not previously reported that level of infection.
“I know hearing these sorts of case numbers will sound deeply concerning for people to hear,” Ardern said. “We’ll do everything that we can to slow the spread and reduce the number of cases we experience as a nation.”
The prime minister said nine cases of Omicron had been detected among a family who travelled to Auckland for a wedding and other events. Officials had not yet been able to connect the outbreak to an “index case” at the border.
“That means Omicron is now circulating in Auckland and possibly the Nelson Marlborough region, if not elsewhere,” Ardern said.
Initial estimates suggest more than 100 people were at events attended by the family. A flight attendant on their flight also tested positive and has flown on several flights since.
The country would move to a “red” alert level at midnight on Sunday, the prime minister said. Under red restrictions, businesses and schools remain open and domestic travel can continue, but there are mandates for mask-wearing, restrictions on gathering size, and vaccine passes are required for entry to most non-essential businesses.
Asked about her wedding cancellation, Ardern said: “Such is life. I am no different to, dare I say, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic. The most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they’re gravely ill. That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.”
Up to 100 vaccinated people can gather under a red alert but the prime minister said her wedding would not proceed in a restricted form.
“My wedding won’t be going ahead but I just join many other New Zealanders who have had an experience like that as a result of the pandemic. And to anyone caught up in that scenario, I am so sorry. But we are all so resilient and I know we understand we are doing this for one another and it will help us carry on.”
Ardern also urged New Zealanders to get their booster shots.
“Omicron is now in more than 80 countries around the world – by delaying its arrival here, we’ve had the time to kick off boosters, vaccinations for children and [to] prepare,” she said.
The country has high levels of vaccination among adults: according to the Ministry of Health, 95% of those aged 12 and over have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 93% have had both.
Ardern asked that residents be kind as New Zealand experienced the unprecedented spread of Covid.
“We are stronger as a team than we are as individuals, and so now I ask that we all pull together again. Please be kind. I know not everyone sees this pandemic in the same way. But for the most part we are motivated by the same thing, and it’s looking out for each other,” she said.
New Zealand had been bracing for Omicron infections to rise as it became clear that the highly infectious variant was likely to find cracks in the country’s strict border measures.
There had been several cases of Omicron among workers at the border and in managed isolation and quarantine over the past week. Sunday’s announcement suggests those border-linked cases have crossed over to the wider community.
On Thursday, Ardern told New Zealanders that the variant’s wider emergence was only a matter of time. “We will experience in New Zealand cases at a level that we haven’t experienced before. We won’t stop Omicron, but we can try and slow it down,” she said.