Four hundred and seventy seven days since New Zealand was last in alert Level 4 for the Covid-19 pandemic, the country returns to a status no one ever wanted to see again.

One positive case found in the community on Tuesday was enough to turn back 15 months of intermittent progress from the days of hard lockdown.

One case which is now confirmed [Wednesday morning] to be the dreaded Delta variant that has taken over almost all infections in the United States, swept many parts of the world, stricken New South Wales and increasingly other states of Australia and accounted for 100 percent of the cases caught at the border in this country in recent times.

New Zealand is entering a hard, Level 4 lockdown for three days and Auckland and the Coromandel for at least seven days from midnight Tuesday.

For many weeks, New Zealand has been like that graphic map of the UK which used to open the Dad’s Army comedy series. In Dad’s Army, a range of arrows carrying Nazi German insignia prodded at the coastline of Britain, being bounced back by the old men of the Home Guard.

Here, the border of New Zealand has faced Covid’s arrows from all angles – airport arrivals into MIQ, ships at Taranaki, Tauranga and elsewhere and at any weak point along our border protections. Our Home Guard – careful returnees, frontline staff, Covid testers, healthcare workers, analysts, modellers, epidemiologists and bureaucrats – have held Covid and Delta off from the community.

Until the past few days. A 58-year-old unvaccinated man, from Devonport in Auckland who also travelled to the Coromandel Peninsula, was confirmed as positive and admitted to quarantine.

Now, many of those same defenders swing into action more robustly than before, and the five million New Zealanders return to their homes and do their bit as they did from March 25 to April 27, 2020. 

The streets of Christchurch during last year’s Level 4 lockdown. The whole country will be in Level 4 from midnight tonight. Photo: David Williams 

Then, we had numerous cases of Covid in clusters, topping out with a daily case number of 80 plus. The lockdown needed to be for four weeks and was then followed by three more weeks at Level 3.

This time, the sole case currently confirmed demands almost as much caution and sacrifice to prevent community spread of that Delta variant – with its far higher transmissibility from one person to many and its ability to still infect the single and double vaccinated, if not cause severe illness.

There was both a sense of dread and a practical, let’s-get-ahead of this thing attitude among Aucklanders. The initial New South Wales political and official timidity and then progressive worsening of the spread of the virus and the extent of lockdown restrictions is a stark comparison for this city. 

Confirming the news on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand had plans to “contain and stamp out Covid-19” and the “going hard and early” strategy of lockdown had worked well for this country last year. There were “benefits to being amongst the last” to face the Delta threats. New Zealand could see what worked and what didn’t.

“Delta has been called a game changer and it is. It means we have to need to go hard and early to stop the spread. We have seen what happens elsewhere if we fail to get on top of it. We only get one chance.

“We want to be short and sharp rather than light and long. We’ve seen what happened in Sydney.”

The Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said officials were assuming this case was the Delta variant because of the experience of intercepted cases lately at the border. There are 23 locations of interest – 13 in and around Coromandel township, where the man visited at the weekend, and 10 in Auckland. While it was a local case, it required a nationwide response.

This time last year, Auckland was four days into a Level 3 restriction after four new cases of the 2020 strain of the virus had been detected in the community. The city remained in either Level 3 or 2 until October 7. 

And now, the clock is once again set into a countdown, until 11.59pm Tuesday night when the Level 4 lockdown takes the city and country into another Covid pause, and then it will be ticking again until the Delta variant is contained or tamed, for now, and a move to Level 3 is again possible.

Time for the Home Guard to once again do its thing.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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