New Zealand reports two new coronavirus cases ending 24-day streak of no new infections

New Zealand on Tuesday reported two new coronavirus cases, both related to recent travel from the UK, ending a 24-day streak of no new infections in the country.

New Zealand lifted all social and economic restrictions except border controls last week, after declaring it had no new or active cases of the coronavirus, one of the first countries in the world to return to pre-pandemic normality.

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned that new cases may come up in the future as New Zealanders return home, and some others were allowed in under special conditions.

Two women arrived in the country from Britain were released early from government quarantine and permitted to drive from the city of Auckland to Wellington, the capital – nearly 650km away – before being diagnosed.

Their trip was an approved exemption from the mandatory isolation period for new arrivals to the country in order to visit a dying parent. The women had “done everything right” and had not put other members of the public at risk, said Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director-general of health, on Tuesday.

After both women tested positive for Covid-19 on Monday, one reported that in hindsight she had been experiencing symptoms, but had attributed them to a pre-existing medical condition.

The women – one aged in her 30s and the other in her 40s – had arrived in Auckland on a flight from the UK via Brisbane, Australia, on 7 June, Bloomfield said. All new arrivals to the country – only New Zealanders, their families, and essential workers are currently permitted to cross the border – are required to spend two weeks in managed isolation at a hotel.

But six days after the women arrived, Bloomfield said they travelled from Auckland to Wellington “in a private vehicle” after they were granted a compassionate exemption to do so and made a safety plan with officials. They had not been tested for Covid-19 at the time.

The pair had made the drive of approximately eight hours without refuelling their vehicle or disembarking for any reason, including to use public toilets, he said.

“They had no contact with anybody else during that trip,” added Bloomfield.

He was “not nervous” that the women had infected anyone else, adding that they would now remain in self-isolation with a relative in Wellington. Those permitted to leave the government-run isolation hotels on compassionate grounds are allowed to grieve with their families – but not to attend funerals.

All those on the women’s Air New Zealand flight to Brisbane, including crew, as well as staff and guests at the Novotel Ellerslie hotel in Auckland – where they were initially in quarantine – including staff, would be tested and isolated.

Bloomfield defended the policy of issuing compassionate exemptions to the two-week quarantine rule for new arrivals, although he added that in future, those exempt would be required to produce a negative test for Covid-19 before leaving managed isolation.

“The women did everything that was asked of them,” he said, and it was “not surprising” that cases of the virus had entered New Zealand from the UK, where “active infections” remained.

“We should not be complacent, we need to remain vigilant,” Bloomfield said. “There is a pandemic raging outside our shores.”

The country has recorded less than 1,500 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 22 deaths, after a strict and early national lockdown which has drawn praise for Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister.