New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a press conference about the COVID-19 coronavirus at Parliament in…
FILE - New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks during a news conference about COVID-19 at Parliament in Wellington on June 8, 2020.

SYDNEY - Ten days ago Jacinda Ardern said her South Pacific country of 5 million people had managed to "crush the virus” through some of the strictest lockdown measures in the world.

Now New Zealand's prime minister is apologizing for a bungle involving two women who had flown home from Britain to visit a dying parent. The New Zealanders were mistakenly released from mandatory quarantine without being tested for COVID-19. All returning citizens must go into state-managed isolation for two weeks and be tested twice for the new coronavirus, once on day 3 and again on day 12. The women later tested positive for the disease.

Screening of more than 300 people who had come into contact with the pair is continuing. They had traveled from Britain via Doha, Qatar, and on to Brisbane, Australia, and then flew to New Zealand. Officials say it is unclear where they were infected.

Ardern says it was an inexcusable error.

“This case represents an unacceptable failure of the system,” she said. “It should never have happened, and it cannot be repeated. From the beginning we have taken an extraordinarily cautious approach at the border. That is why we have required every returning New Zealander to go into a facility that we manage. Our borders and the controls at our borders must be rigorous. They must be disciplined.”

The New Zealand military has been put in charge of quarantine facilities. Early release of those in isolation on compassionate grounds has been suspended.

Opposition politicians have alleged that the handling of the quarantine system seemed "incredibly loose" with reports of people in isolation at hotels mingling in bars. There have been calls for New Zealand’s health minister, David Clark, to be dismissed.

The two cases bring to an end 24 days of no reported coronavirus infections in New Zealand. The government has scrapped almost all of the disease control measures, although its international borders remain closed to foreign nationals.

New Zealand has recorded just over 1,500 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases. Twenty-two people have died.

Health officials are warning against complacency, insisting there was “a pandemic raging outside our shores.”

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