New Zealand Covid cases hit record despite vaccination push

By: AFP      Published: 10:45 AM, 19 Oct, 2021
New Zealand Covid cases hit record despite vaccination push
File photo.

New Zealand recorded its highest number of daily coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic on Tuesday as a Delta-variant outbreak that dashed the nation's "Covid Zero" hopes showed no signs of easing.

Health authorities announced 94 new virus cases, exceeding the previous daily record of 89 set in April last year during the first wave of Covid-19 infections.

While case numbers remain low by most international standards, they have been steadily growing since the highly transmissible Delta variant was first found in New Zealand in mid-August.

The outbreak, centred on Auckland, has forced Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to drop her core policy goal of eliminating the virus in favour of ramping up vaccination efforts.

The centre-left leader is set to unveil a new strategy on Friday that will allow for greater freedoms once vaccination targets have been reached.

Around two-thirds of the eligible population have now been fully inoculated.

"We know that vaccinations are already making a significant difference to the outbreak in Auckland, but so too are people following the rules," Ardern told reporters.

Before the arrival of Delta, New Zealand won widespread praise for its hardline approach, which involved strict lockdowns, rigorous contact tracing and tight border restrictions.

The measures paid off, with just 28 deaths in a population of five million and domestic life near normal for long periods.

But Ardern has conceded Delta was a "game-changer", spreading at a rate too fast for contract-tracers to keep up.

Singapore expands quarantine-free travel

Singapore on Tuesday began quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated passengers from eight countries, part of a plan to ease restrictions as the business hub gears up to live with the coronavirus.

The latest easing expanded a programme that began with vaccinated air travel lanes with Germany and Brunei last month, and is now open to passengers from the United States, Canada, Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

Singapore Airlines said flights from Amsterdam, London, Los Angeles and New York were scheduled to arrive Tuesday under the programme.

"We have seen very strong demand for our Vaccinated Travel Lane flights," the carrier told AFP.

"This is across all cabin classes, as well as various travel segments including leisure, families, and business travel."

Passengers arriving as part of this scheme -- which will include South Korea from November 15 -- will not have to quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated and test negative for the virus before they depart and when they arrive.

To enable families to travel, Singapore has allowed entry to unvaccinated children aged 12 years and under if they are accompanied by someone flying under the scheme.

The city-state initially fought the Covid-19 pandemic by shutting borders, imposing lockdowns of varying intensity and aggressive contact tracing. But with more than 80 percent of the population fully vaccinated, authorities are keen to revive the economy.

"Singapore cannot stay locked down and closed off indefinitely," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said October 9, when he announced a raft of measures under the "Living with Covid-19" strategy.

The city-state is home to the regional offices of thousands of multi-national corporations, which rely on Singapore's status as a business and aviation hub for their operations.

Singapore's vaccinated travel lanes may also provide a shot in the arm for the pandemic-hammered airline and tourism industries, analysts said.

Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for about five percent of Singapore's GDP, said Song Seng Wun, a regional economist with CIMB Private Banking.

"We used to get 1.6 million tourists every month, our airport used to handle over a thousand flights a day pre-pandemic. Now it is just over 300 flights a day," he told AFP.

Statistics from the Singapore tourism board showed international visitor arrivals plunging to less than 2.8 million last year from a record 19.1 million in 2019.