This afternoon, on the same day New Zealand recorded zero active cases for the first time since the pandemic began, the prime minister announced the country would move to alert level one at midnight, signalling the end of all domestic Covid-19 restrictions. This is the speech she gave.
Today is day 26 of alert level two and day 17 without any new cases of Covid-19 in the country. Today is also day 75 of being in a Covid alert level of any kind.
Our team of 5 million has both sacrificed and achieved a huge amount in just under 11 weeks as the world reckoned with, and continues to reckon with, a virus that went from obscurity at the start of the year to a global pandemic that will linger, with second waves a constant reality.
As it spread rapidly around the world, we all saw people losing their loved ones and their livelihoods at a rate that was never acceptable to us. And so here in New Zealand we went hard and early with a single plan that had a dual purpose – and to protect lives and livelihoods.
Self isolation for all returning travellers came into place first – 17 days after our first case. We closed our borders to everyone but New Zealanders 20 days after our first case. Our first economic package, including the critically important wage subsidy scheme, was in place 19 days after the first case. Most other countries took more than 40.
And then New Zealanders did something remarkable in our fight to beat Covid-19. We united in unprecedented ways to crush the virus. Our lockdown was in place 26 days after our first case, when we had just over 200 cases.
Google tracking showed that during our lockdown, New Zealanders massively reduced their movements – by 91% to retail and recreation – better than Australia, the UK, the United States, and nearly every other place we compare ourselves to.
Had we not acted, 11 days in to our lockdown we were projected to have 4000 cases. We had 1000 and one of the lowest rates per capita in the world.
That was what the sacrifice of our team of 5 million was for. To keep one another safe, and to keep one another well. And as much as we could, we have.
We acknowledge those we have lost in our battle to beat Covid-19.
Our goal was also to come out the other side as quickly and as safely as we could. A place where our borders continue to be our first line of defence but where all current rules and restrictions on businesses and services are essentially lifted.
Where all the rules for hospitality, such as single service, separated tables, and people being seated, all end. Where there is no requirement for physical distancing in workplaces and in public places. Where all gatherings of any size can occur. Where life feels as normal as it can in the time of a global pandemic.
And today, 75 days later, we are ready.
Today, there are no active cases in New Zealand.
We have tested almost 40,000 people for Covid-19 in the past 17 days and none have tested positive. We have had no one in hospital with Covid-19 for 12 days. It’s been 40 days since the last case of community transmission, 22 days since that person finished their self-isolation.
And so today I can announce that Cabinet has agreed we will now move to level one – to get our economy fully open again – and we will start almost immediately.
We move down to Covid-19 alert level one from midnight tonight.
With over 100,000 new cases being reported each day, the challenge of Covid remains around the globe and so it remains here. We are not immune to what is happening in the rest of the world. But unlike the rest of the world, not only have we protected New Zealanders’ health, we now have a head-start on our economic recovery.
That’s because at level one we become, if not the most open, one of the most open economies in the world. Oxford University publishes a government response stringency index, ranking countries from 0 to 100 in terms of their level of restrictions. Before today’s move to level one, New Zealand was at 33.3, while Australia was at 62.5. We were already nearly twice as open as they were.
The Reserve Bank’s analysis shows the economy under level one is expected to be operating just 3.8% below normal levels. That’s an improvement from the estimated 8.8% below normal under level two, 19% below normal under level three, and 37% under level four.
And it was encouraging to see economists recognise that activity under level two was also stronger than expected. Westpac last week said the economic recovery was tracking faster than expected, and that activity like heavy and light traffic movement, and electricity use is back to, or above, pre-Covid levels.
Zespri too has reported that despite the global challenge of Covid, its exports are well ahead of last year, with 5.7 million more trays shipped this season so far than last season along with its highest sales yet in Europe as demand for healthy produce grows.
At level one, we expect the continuation of recovery. After all, at level one we can hold public events without limitations. Private events such as weddings, functions and funerals without limitations. Retail is back without limitations. Hospitality is back without limitations. Public transport and travel across the country is fully opened.
This freedom from restrictions relies though heavily on the ongoing role that our border controls will play in keeping the virus out. We must remain mindful of the global situation and the harsh reality that the virus will be in our world for some time to come.
We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time – it is a sustained effort. We almost certainly will see cases here again – I want to say again, we will almost certainly see cases here again – but when that occurs it will not mean we have failed. It is the reality of this virus. We must be and we are prepared for future cases.
That’s the reasons our border remains our first line of defence as we aim not to import the virus. Borders remain closed at 15 of 17 comparable countries. Our managed isolation and quarantine at the border will continue and it will be as important as ever as we know this is a potential pathway.
And that is key because we want to not just move to level one – we want to stay there.
And so there is a key ask I have of all of you today, of businesses. We are asking all businesses and services where the public visit or enter to provide people the opportunity to maintain their own diaries of where they’ve been.
And so our All of Government team will continue working with sector groups, businesses, hospitality firms, churches, schools and others to encourage them to display QR codes via posters at the entrance of premises – as most of you will have seen at businesses as you were out and about at the weekend – so that everyone can maintain their diaries via the NZ Covid Tracer App.
Manual sign-in is no longer required, but we do ask that you put up a QR code poster at the door of your premises so people can scan in and can keep a record for themselves. Ongoing improvements will be made to ensure these QR posters are as accessible as possible for businesses.
We have also worked with the events sector on a voluntary code to ensure attendees’ details are captured at these bigger events where we know the virus can spread easily.
The reason for all of this is simple. If we get one or two cases in future, which will remain possible for some time to come due to the global situation and nature of the virus, we need to shut down those cases fast. The last thing we want to do is move back up the alert system again.
So this is a key new behaviour we are asking all New Zealanders to adopt at level one. You can do and go wherever you like, we just ask you keep a record of where you have been by scanning in – or noting down your movements for yourself.
I have one more thing to ask. At level two, agencies have been managing the return of employees to work with around 50% of people back at their places of work last week. Now, at level one, you can, unless you feel unwell, go back to your place of work.
There has been some good adaptation over the past couple of months with flexible working. This is progress and has helped people with care arrangements and has also helped to avoid traffic congestion – these things we should not lose. But we can balance that with ensuring we also have thriving CBDs.
For our part we have asked the State Services Commission to issue new workplace guidance to make it clear that every public sector worker should return to their usual place of work, taking into account flexible work policies.
We’ve got to level one, now let’s make our next goal supporting our recovery, right across the economy.
I know that having such a firm sight on success for so long has sometimes made the road we’ve taken seem longer and the steps we’ve taken seem more laboured. At every step there have been those who’ve pushed us to do something different, to go faster or further, but our collective results speak I think for themselves.
That caution and hard work got us down the mountain safely when the descent is always the most perilous part. Moving to level one now is the dividend for everyone’s hard work, for now.
But we need our team of 5 million for the next phase. And that is to get New Zealand moving again, as we move from the collective call to action of Unite against Covid-19 to Unite for Recovery.
I encourage you to buy, play and experience New Zealand-made to get our country moving again. Consider it an extra form of support to visit our country, buy our local products and support our local businesses.
For my part, this week is about the government’s recovery efforts, and focus on jobs. And you’ll be seeing that in my agenda.
Tomorrow I will be in the Bay of Plenty, visiting a kiwifruit and avocado packhouse – to discuss how we can further assist the sector to attract workers, noting horticulture has already picked up some 2000 workers who have lost their jobs due to Covid. I will also check in with our Mana in Mahi scheme that gives employers the equivalent of the unemployment benefit to hire those who might be reliant on it, at an electrical business installing solar power and heat pumps in Tauranga.
On Wednesday I’ll be in Kaikoura for a tourism announcement. On Thursday I’m in Auckland making a health infrastructure announcement and on Friday, following our $30 billion investment to protect jobs and restart the economy due to Covid, I will speak to the Vision Week web summit where I will share further details of how the government is working with business on New Zealand’s economic recovery and rebuild from Covid-19.
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.
And so while the job is not done, there is no denying this is a milestone. So can I finish with a very simple thank you New Zealand.