It’s a return to (nearly) normal as New Zealand moves to alert level one and the country is declared free of known cases of Covid-19. Justin Giovannetti reports from parliament as the decision was made.
New Zealand will end nearly all Covid-19 restrictions at midnight while maintaining strict controls at the border, making it one of the world’s first countries to face the virus and eliminate all known active cases.
On Tuesday, New Zealander will wake up to a country remarkably close to normal again as physical distancing requirements and all limits on public events are scrapped. The move comes after weeks of pressure from opposition groups and business lobbies calling for the end of restrictions as the number of cases dwindled.
“We are ready,” Jacinda Ardern said at the Beehive on Monday, only hours after director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield confirmed that all known community transmission had been eliminated from New Zealand.
There was a buzz in the basement theatre at parliament as an unusually large number of cameras flashed and more public servants than normal attended. Ardern slowly described what had happened over the 75 days since the first restrictions took effect.
“We united in unprecedented ways to crush the virus,” she said. “Thank you New Zealand.”
While second waves start to crash around the world and more cases are expected to emerge in New Zealand before a vaccine or treatment is developed, Ardern said the country was ready.
The strict alert level four lockdown which few other countries have been able to attempt has been credited with taming Covid-19 in New Zealand. The government had projected up to 4,000 cases even with restrictions, but thanks to the tough lockdown that number plateaued at just over 1,000.
The move to alert level one comes about as early as comfortable for health experts. The country increased public group sizes to 100 people only 10 days ago, so a full incubation cycle of 14 days has yet to pass. However, no new cases have been reported in 17 days after over 40,000 negative tests in a row.
University of Auckland microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said the situation today isn’t as dire as some projections had feared. “We didn’t know how bad it could get and it could’ve been much, much worse. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how few cases we had. There was a lot of work and a bit of luck. Acting early is what saved us, really,” she said.
The government is now placing significant trust in New Zealanders, said Wiles. People are expected to maintain contact tracing and a diary of their movements going forward. Diligent hand washing will remain a constant, and anyone who gets sick will still be asked to contact a health professional immediately. Ardern has warned repeatedly that this was no time for “stoic Kiwis”.
According to Ardern, the near-immediate change is possible because there is no need for the usual 48-hour delay before an alert level change, which previous moves required due to new enforcement rules needing to be drafted. Instead, emergency government powers will be rolled back almost immediately, including a new public health law that gives police the right to enter residences without a warrant.
New Zealand’s main line of defence is now at the border where mandatory testing started on Monday for all arrivals. The number of people entering New Zealand has fallen to about 1,000 arrivals per week over the past two months. Government-supervised isolation of newcomers will continue indefinitely, according to the prime minister.
National Party leader Todd Muller celebrated the move in a tweet on Monday. “Well done New Zealand. Your sacrifices have got us to this point, and you all deserve a huge celebration. Here’s to Level 1!”
The country’s focus will now shift from confronting the coronavirus to dealing with an economy that is in recession and has shed thousands of jobs in recent months.
The return to normal will be swift, with the government now asking workers to return to their old routines and places of work. The country’s CBDs are suffering and could use the lunch hour traffic. Restaurants and cafes can now open to capacity. Soon after the prime minister’s announcement, rugby tickets were made available for Sunday’s long-awaited game at Eden Park between the Blues and Hurricanes.
New Zealand’s economic woes are similar to those in most advanced economies and the Labour-led coalition has set aside $20 billion to help workers and businesses in the coming month. The Reserve Bank expects the economy will be operating at about 3.8% below normal levels while in level one.
With most of the world still in various states of lockdown with over 100,000 new cases of Covid-19 being reported daily, New Zealand’s export-oriented economy will continue to suffer for months to come. “While we’re in a safer, stronger position there’s still no easy path back to pre-Covid life but the determination and focus we have had on our health response will now be vested in our economic rebuild,” said Ardern.
More than seven million cases have been confirmed worldwide as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University. While the US remains the worst affected country, the rate of infection in other countries is increasing rapidly, notably in Brazil. Late last week that country’s health ministry was reporting a Covid-19 death every 58 seconds. Brazil stopped publishing official data on coronavirus deaths and infections over the weekend.
Taking questions from reporters on Monday, Ardern said she did a little dance the previous day when she heard the country had no new cases. “I showed Neve, she was caught a little by surprise, but she joined in having absolutely no idea why I was dancing around the lounge,” said the prime minister of her nearly two-year-old daughter, while Bloomfield said he allowed himself a broad smile at the news. Perhaps the first in months.