PoliticsMarch 21, 2020

Ardern announces four-tier Covid-19 alert system as NZ faces community spread


New Zealand is currently at level two in the aftermath of two suspected cases of community transmission.

Jacinda Ardern has addressed New Zealand from parliament today to announce a new four-tier alert system to convey expected behaviour as the country deals with the rise of the Covid-19 coronavirus. The prime minister described our current status as tier two, with each one bringing “escalating restrictions on human contact, travel and business operations”.

Her speech (read it in full at the foot of this post) was made from her ninth-floor office in parliament, and simulcast across RNZ, TVNZ and Newshub. It came in the aftermath of the announcement this morning of the first two suspected cases of community transmission of the virus, with one in Auckland, and a second in the Wairarapa. The alert system can be applied nationally, regionally or to cities or towns.

The system is as follows (click here for a more comprehensive PDF): 

  • Level 1: Where Covid-19 is here but contained

A preparation phase. Measures include border restrictions, contact tracing, limits on mass gatherings.

  • Level 2: Where the disease is contained but risks are growing

Move to reduce contact. Measures include further border measures. Cancel events. Ask people to work remotely where possible and cancel travel.

  • Level 3: Where the disease is increasingly difficult to contain

Step things up again. Close public venues. Ask non-essential businesses to close.

  • Level 4: Where we have sustained transmission

Eliminate contact altogether. Maintain essential services but ask everyone to stay at home until Covid-19 is under control.

In announcing our current status as level two, she also added to current recommendations with more specific advice for vulnerable groups. “People over 70 years of age, or people who are immunocompromised or have certain pre-existing conditions, need to stay at home as much as they can from now on.”

She has also recommended that all non-essential domestic travel be limited. “We need people to significantly reduce the number of interactions they have at this time and that includes visiting people in different parts of the country for non-essential reasons.

“These measures are being taken in the national interest. We know people, business, and sports events will be impacted, but these are short-term disruptions for the overall health of our people and country.”

Ardern made reference to the rapid international spread of the virus, which has seen bars and restaurants close across Europe, and lockdowns increasingly common. 

“The international situation is changing rapidly,” said Ardern, “and we need to clearly sign-post the changes New Zealanders will be asked to make as we step up our efforts to limit the spread of the virus. The alert system means people can see and plan for the kinds of restrictions we may be required to put in place, which may be required rapidly.”

The prime minister and the director general of health Ashley Bloomfield appeared together after Ardern’s address at the Beehive theatrette to take questions. At level two, Ardern said, people are encouraged not to gather together, but, “we are asking people to take responsibility for their own decision making here… but please keep in mind the more contact you have with others, the greater the risk”.

When asked what might prompt elevation to level three, and at what scale, Bloomfield said it would depend on the circumstances behind the transmission. “If, for example, we have a person who has done a lot of travel around the country and we can’t identify exactly where that community transmission occurred then we may look at the whole country but generally speaking we would be looking first of all at that local community.”

Fourteen cases bring the total to 52

At another press conference earlier today, Bloomfield announced 14 new cases of Covid-19, four in Wellington, one in Taranaki, three in Auckland, one in Waikato, one in Taupō, one in Manawatū, and two in Nelson. This brings the running total to 52 (earlier reports were at 53 due to a double count in Taranaki), with four more cases likely.

Most are travel-related, but two cases lack a known link to overseas travel, and at this point “we cannot rule out a risk of community transmission in these cases”. Bloomfield said one case was in the Auckland region, and one in the Wairarapa.

Asked about the risk of undetected community transmission, given the testing has focused on people with overseas links, Bloomfield said: “What I can say is testing has ramped up, as practitioners have identified people who need testing. Right from early on we were testing the people we felt needed testing, based on an overseas travel link. As more people have come into the country who have been overseas, more testing has happened.

“Yesterday we did 500 tests, the day before 1,000 tests. So there is a large number of tests being done. That will help us have an early signal whether there is community transmission in one or more locations. So I think the volume of testing now is good. Just for comparison, South Korea’s capacity was about 10,000 tests per day, with a population about 10 times the size of ours. So I think our testing capacity is good. What we want to do is make sure is that we are doing the number of tests that need to be done.”

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Jacinda Ardern’s address in full

Kia ora koutou katoa.

I’m speaking directly to all New Zealanders today to give you as much certainty and clarity as we can as we fight Covid-19.

Over the past few weeks, the world has changed. And it has changed very quickly. In February it would have seemed unimaginable to close New Zealand’s borders to the world, and now it has been an obvious step as we fight Covid-19.

This is because we are experiencing an unprecedented event – a global pandemic that in New Zealand, we have moved to fight by going hard, and going early.

I understand that all of this rapid change creates anxiety, and uncertainty. Especially when it means changing how we live. That’s why today I am going to set out for you as clearly as possible, what you can expect as we continue to fight the virus together.

The first really important thing to remember, is that the vast majority of people who will ever have Covid-19 will only experience mild to moderate symptoms. But there will be some who need more care.

That’s why we have to focus on one simple goal – to slow down Covid-19.

Slowing it down, means not having one big tidal wave of cases, but instead, smaller waves – groups of cases that we can manage properly as they arise. That means we reduce the impact on health, on jobs and on our economy. Some countries have successfully managed to do this –but it does mean we have to be ready to step up our action when we need to.

Here’s how we will know what to do and when.

Already in New Zealand we have warning systems to try and get ahead of problems and hazards. We all know and recognise signs that tell us when we have fire risk Or when to reduce our water use.

Today I am announcing an alert system for Covid-19. That alert system can apply to the whole country, but sometimes, it may only apply to certain towns or cities.

There are four levels to the alert system. At each level there are things we need you to do, to keep you safe. And there are things the government will do too.

Alert Level One is where Covid-19 is here, but contained. In this phase we prepare. The basics, like border measures, contact tracing, and cancelling mass gatherings are activated. You’ll see that this is where we have been when Covid-first arrived in New Zealand.

Alert Level Two is where the disease is contained but the risks are growing because we have more cases. This is when we move to reduce our contact with one another. We increase our border measures, and we cancel events. This is also the level where we ask people to work differently if they can, and cancel unnecessary travel.

Alert Level Three is where the disease is increasingly difficult to contain. This is where we restrict our contact by stepping things up again. We close public venues and ask non-essential businesses to close.

Alert Level Four is where we have sustained transmission. This is where we eliminate contact with each other altogether. We keep essential services going but ask everyone to stay at home until Covid-19 is back under control.

It’s important to note, that at every alert level supermarkets and essential services, like access to pharmaceuticals will continue. Shop normally. If we do that, our supermarkets will have time to restock their shelves.

We will use this alert system every time we update our cases, so you’ll know if the status in your area has gone up, or down, or stayed the same. And what you’ll need to do.

Today I am confirming that New Zealand is at alert level two.

That means the risk of community transmission is growing, and so to stay ahead and reduce the chances of the wave growing, we need to step things up.

We already have many of the measures for level two in place. But there are some that are new.

Here are the things that we need from you:

Today we are asking people over 70 years of age, or people who have compromised immunity or have underlying respiratory conditions to stay at home as much as they can.

That means we need friends, family and neighbours to support our older New Zealanders and people who may be in this group by doing simple things like keeping in contact and dropping off food or other supplies. And when you do, make sure you are not sick, that you are using good handwashing practices, and keeping your distance.

We also need everyone to start working differently. Many offices have plans for workers to work from home. Others have staggered meal breaks or shift based working. We are now asking you to implement these plans.

We know not everyone can do this. We need and will continue to have health and emergency professionals, transport and delivery staff, supermarket and food production workers, and other essential people continuing on at their place of work. And there are some sectors where work from home is impossible. There are steps these workplaces should take all the same, like additional cleaning, and physical distancing as much as possible.

And finally, we are asking that you limit your movement around the country. This will help us track and contain any spread of Covid-19. That means cutting non-essential domestic travel.

Every unnecessary movement gives Covid-19 a chance to spread.

For those of you who are parents or caregivers, you will have questions about schools and education facilities. At alert level two, schools will be closed if there is a case that effects a school, as we have been doing to date. That may change if we move into higher alert levels. Sending children home at this stage though, doesn’t necessarily reduce transmission in the community, but I can assure you we are constantly monitoring these settings to keep children safe. As a mum, I can assure you that is my key consideration.

Finally, this is a time when I know people will want as much information as possible. It’s also a time when there is plenty of mis-information. All the advice from the government about Covid-19 and how it affects you is available at including more detailed guidance on this announcement.

Till then, I know this current situations is causing huge disruption and uncertainty. And right now I cannot tell you when that will end. This alert system is designed to help us through that – so please do stay tuned as we share daily updates – especially as alert levels can move from one level to the next in a short space of time, as we have seen elsewhere in the world.

For now, I ask that New Zealand does what we do so well. We are a country that is creative, practical, and community minded. We may not have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes, but we know how to rally and we know how to look after one another, and right now what could be more important than that. So thank you for all that you’re about to do.

Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.

Text as issued by the prime minister’s office.

Keep going!