Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsMay 11, 2020

New Zealand will move to alert level two on Thursday May 14. But not fully

Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Following a meeting of the full cabinet, Jacinda Ardern has announced New Zealand will begin a phased move from alert level three to level two on Thursday. Bubbles can be broken, but there is one major condition.

Read Ardern’s speech in full here.

New Zealand will move to alert level two in phased stages, Jacinda Ardern has announced.

As of Thursday May 14 (or 11.59pm on Wednesday, to be precise), retail, malls, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces including playgrounds and gyms can reopen. All will be required to have distancing and hygiene measures in place.

Moving around the country will also be permitted, and health services will restart. Bubbles can be broken, but catch-ups with friends or family should be limited to 10, said Ardern.

On Monday 18 May, schools and early learning centres will reopen.

On the following Thursday, May 21, bars can open, on the condition they stick to requirements for distancing, seating and other measures.

“We have left bars till last because they do pose the most risk,” said Ardern, pointing to the lesson of South Korea, which “recently opened up their bars only to close them again after one person created an outbreak of 40 people and caused 1,500 tests”.

Asked about the distinction between bars and restaurants, Ardern said it was predicated on guidance set out in the Easter Sunday Anzac Day legislation. “Essentially if the primary purpose is for dining you can open. If the primary purpose is for drinking then there’s that delay.”

The “few extra days” provided “a chance to lock in the data from level three and feel more secure that we’re ready for this move”, said Ardern. “Overall, though, the upshot is that in 10 days’ time we will have reopened most businesses in New Zealand, and sooner than many other countries around the world. But that fits with our plan. Our plan was go hard, and go early, so we can get our economy moving again sooner, and so we can get the economic benefit of getting our health response right. So far, we have.”

Speaking after a full meeting of cabinet, Ardern acknowledged those who had made sacrifices through levels three and four. “Kiwis from all walks of life were resolute and determined. Determined that this was a war we could win. But one that we could only win together.”

She added: “We may have won a few battles but we have not won the war.” There remained however the potential for silent spread and new cases. She urged people, as existing bubbles are broken, to stick to the rules and adhere to distancing requirements, “and keeping our social gatherings small for now”.

Cabinet had concurred with all of the Ministry of Health’s advice, with one exception, said Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health. They had sought two weeks delay for bars; cabinet had “settled on one”.

Ardern said social events or “mixing and mingling” won’t be allowed for groups of more than 10. That also applies to religious services, weddings, funerals and stag dos. “And if you’re wanting to head to a restaurant or a bar, they won’t be allowed to take group bookings larger than 10.”

Ardern made no mention of a restriction on duration of gatherings, but the official Covid-19 site reads: “You can have friends and family over to your home, but gatherings are limited to: up to 10 people, or the people who usually live in your house [and] for up two  hours”.

(Update: it now transpires that’s a rogue rule, a wrong rule, and should never have made it to the website. Clear your diaries.)

Those restrictions would be reviewed in two weeks. “If our numbers are still looking good, we will begin to grow those numbers.” The advice for those hoping to plan a wedding, however, was “hold off for now”.

The rate of transmission, the scale of testing and the capacity increase in contact tracing provided great confidence, said Ardern. But “the key rule is to play it safe. We all need to take individual responsibility for our actions and continue to behave like the virus is still among us, especially in public and around people you don’t know.”

While that might something like a level 2.5, at least at first, the deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, dismissed that idea in a press release issued while Ardern was still speaking.

“For the millions of New Zealanders who stayed at home under alert levels three and four, at great personal sacrifice, this announcement will come as great relief. Their sacrifice has ensured we can move with confidence into alert level two, rather than a nonsensical, half-baked level 2.5 as suggested by the National Party,” he said.

“New Zealand First appreciates that many businesses are struggling, and, alongside their workers, have put in a Herculean effort to support our nationwide fight against the virus’ lethal potential.”

There is no requirement for the wearing of masks, despite calls from some experts that it should be obligatory on public transport. Bloomfield said the evidence remained mixed, but that we would continue to review it.

The shift to level two will require legislation, which will be introduced and passed tomorrow and Wednesday, said the attorney general, David Parker, in a statement.

The Public Health Response Bill would mean “controls on gatherings of people and physical distancing are still enforceable”, said Parker.

Measures under levels three and four have depended on the Epidemic Notice, the Health Act and the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act. These are no longer applicable if the country is not in a state of emergency.

“The regulatory backup provided by the new law allows us to address behaviour at alert level two that is particularly harmful to the public health objective, and to demonstrate to those who are complying voluntarily that non-compliance will not be tolerated,” said Parker. “We need the legislation in place before level two starts.”

He added: “The government has assessed there is not time for the usual select committee process but we do want a necessarily brief opportunity for comment on the bill. Therefore we have released a disclosure draft of the bill to the opposition and experts, and have invited comment on it by 10am, Tuesday 12 May.

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles said that while she’s been keen to see alert level three remain “for a little longer, just to ensure that the gains we have made from alert levels three and four were locked in, I’m grateful we are making a staggered move to alert level two and that the sizes of gatherings will be limited initially.”

She added: “The government have clearly taken a pragmatic approach that is trying the balance the gains we have made with keeping our ‘team of five million’ together. Now it’s up to each one of us to do all we can to prevent us seeing a surge in cases in the coming weeks. That means working from home if we can. It means staying home if we have even the slightest hint we are unwell and making arrangements to get a test. It means keeping track of where we have been and who we have been with so that our contact tracers can do their job if they need to. And it means limiting our hugs and kisses and keeping up with washing our hands.”

Speaking to The Spinoff before today’s announcement, Shaun Hendy, who leads a team at Te Pūnaha Matatini that has been modelling the Covid-19 spread in New Zealand and providing advice to the government, warned against assuming that the virus had been in effect eliminated.

“From our modelling perspective, we haven’t ruled out that there could still be undetected chains of transmission. That’s still quite possible. Because some people don’t get strong symptoms, it’s still possible that it’s being passed through groups of people, particularly as we’ve gone to level three and some people have extended their bubbles,” he said.

Hendy, who would have preferred to hold in level three till next week, said that in level two “the onus comes down to us as individuals, to keep up our physical distancing, keep up the hygiene, and if you’ve got any symptoms go get a test. And the best thing big government can do now is just make sure that contact tracing operation is ready to go should we need it.”

Today’s announcement follows a string of low results in the daily Ministry of Health notifications of new cases. The total number of “active cases” in New Zealand today dipped under 100 for the first time since March 22, the day before New Zealand moved from level two to level four. Twenty-one people in New Zealand have died after contracting Covid-19.

Covid-19 in New Zealand: a timeline

February 28, 2020: The first case of Covid-19 is confirmed in New Zealand – a 60-year-old who had returned from Iran.

March 11: The World Health Organisation declares the Covid-19 outbreak an official pandemic.

March 14: The prime minister announces that all people entering the country from overseas must self-isolate for 14 days, excluding travellers from the Pacific Islands. Travel to the Pacific is heavily restricted. Cruise ships are banned from docking in the country.

March 16: Jacinda Ardern says international visitors who don’t quarantine will be deported. The Reserve Bank declares an emergency cash rate cut and Air New Zealand stops many services and halts share trading.

March 17: The government announces a $12.1b package to support workers, businesses, health and income support.

March 19: New Zealand’s borders are closed to all but returning New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and their families. All indoor gatherings of over 100 people are banned.

March 21:  The four-level alert system is announced, and Ardern says the country is in level two. She asks those over 70 to self-isolate in their homes. Non-essential domestic travel is discouraged and those who can are asked to work from home.

March 23: There is an immediate move to level three as the number of cases in New Zealand surpasses 100. Two cases are treated as community transmission. Schools will be closed from March 24, all non-essential business will close and domestic travel is heavily restricted. In 48 hours, Ardern announces, the country will move to level four.

March 25: A state of emergency is declared and the country prepares for level four, for a minimum of four weeks, at midnight.

March 29: New Zealand’s first Covid-related death is recorded, a woman in her 70s from the West Coast. Around 2% of cases appear to be community transmission.

April 2: The largest number of new cases in one day is recorded, 89.

April 7: The number of recovered cases outweighs the number of new cases for the first time.

April 17: The number of new cases hits single digits for the first time.

April 20: Ardern announces the country will stay in alert level four for an additional five days, until midnight on Monday, April 27. After that, the country will move to alert level three for two weeks, before the situation is reviewed.

April 27: At 11.59pm, New Zealand moves into alert level three.

May 4: The first zero result case result since March 16.

May 7: Jacinda Ardern outlines rules for alert level two.

May 11: Ardern reveals timing for move to alert level two.

May 14: A staged introduction of alert level two begins.

Keep going!