WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand logged 19 more cases of the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant on Friday - all in Auckland, making it highly likely that the country's biggest city will continue to be sealed off even if some restrictions are eased next week.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern enforced what was meant to be a "short and sharp" nationwide lockdown nationwide in mid-August after the Delta outbreak. But while the rest of the country has largely returned to normal life, Auckland's population of 1.7 million has now been in lockdown for about seven weeks.
Ardern will decide on Monday whether she will ease the restrictions in Auckland but has warned that border rules preventing travel to and from the city are likely to remain in place.
Recent daily case numbers have ranged between 8 and 45 and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson described the relatively stable numbers as encouraging.
"But we must not be complacent," he said, urging more Aucklanders to get tested over the weekend. Health authorities have said more cases are expected in the coming days.
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 vaccinated.
Some 46% of New Zealand's eligible population is fully vaccinated.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)