PoliticsMarch 25, 2021

The 150-hour NZ Covid whirlwind of 2020: as it happened


It was an unforgettable time. But how much of it can you remember?

A year ago, New Zealand woke up in alert level four: easily the strictest set of state-mandated prohibitions most of us might have imagined, let alone lived in. Speaking to media this week, a year on, the country’s most senior health official, Ashley Bloomfield, said he regretted not documenting the moments as they happened. He speaks for a lot of us. Though we might not all have had quite so much on our plates as the director general did in March 2020, it’s all a bit of a blur. 

In an attempt to fill some of the gaps, here’s a whistlestop reconstruction. A retro-live-blog, call it. Drawing on the live updates pages from The Spinoff of the time, other contemporaneous sources (thanks especially to RNZ for its livestreaming) and the not inconsiderable benefit of hindsight, here are those extraordinary hours, 150 of them, as they happened.

Thursday March 19, 2020

6.05pm: New Zealand borders will close tonight

New Zealand will shut its doors to foreign nationals as of 11.59pm, the prime minister has just announced. 

Speaking at the Beehive following a cabinet meeting, Jacinda Ardern said: “I want to acknowledge that at no time in New Zealand’s history has a power like this been used. I recognise how extraordinary it is. But we have to make decisions in the best interests of the health of those who live here, whether they be young or old, whether they are newly arrived or permanent.”

Since Sunday, everyone has been required to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival in New Zealand. That rule remains in place. All New Zealanders temporarily abroad have been urged to return home as soon as possible. Hospital ICUs are preparing ventilators for potential Covid-19 cases.

Earlier today, the health minister, David Clark, announced a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people. That followed the cancellation of events including the Christchurch mosque attack memorial service and the Pasifika Festival. 

The leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges, this morning said: “I support the indoor events ban from 100 and would support going even further on this. I also urge the government to close our borders to non-NZ residents and citizens.”

Today New Zealand recorded eight new cases, bringing the total to date to 28. As the virus spreads across the world, Italy posted its worst one-day death coronavirus toll: 475.

Wuhan, the epicentre of Covid-19, has seen more than 2,500 deaths. Today, after many weeks of strict lockdown, the Chinese city reported zero new cases. 

Friday March 20

8.25am: Message to New Zealanders overseas

New Zealanders stranded abroad cannot be guaranteed a route home, the deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, has told RNZ. He yesterday said contemplating international travel from New Zealand was “selfish”.

9.30am: Air New Zealand rescue package announced

Measures to keep the national airline airborne, which include a guarantee to keep a number of domestic and international routes going and a $900m loan option, have been announced by the finance minister, Grant Robertson. “I think it’s vitally important we have a national carrier,” he said. 

Repatriation flights are under discussion.

1.15pm: 11 new cases

There are 11 new positive cases, bringing the total to 39. So far all cases investigated are linked to overseas travel. Asked about the risk of community transmission, Bloomfield said they were looking “very, very carefully … Any hint that we have, like the canary in the mine of community spread, would lead us to think about what other measures we need to put in place.”

Testing is limited for the most part to those with symptoms and a travel history or link to someone who had returned from overseas.

At the same press conference, a Foodstuffs representative urged New Zealanders to desist from panic buying and “shop normal”.

5.35pm: ‘We’ve tried to stay ahead’

“We’ve tried to be preemptive,” Jacinda Ardern has told RNZ. “We’ve tried to stay ahead of what might happen with our cases. We will keep looking to do that. So I really want to implore people: be prepared to work from home. Be prepared to cancel non-essential travel. When we’re in a position to have to do that, we will give very strong advice on that. But in the meantime, be prepared.”

Asked whether New Zealanders should be prepared for the possibility of lockdown, Ardern said: “If we move into a phase where we’ve got outbreaks in different parts of New Zealand, we should all be prepared for that.”

Earlier today, a cabinet memo later released advised: “Iran and Italy show dramatically what happens when action is taken too late. Their health systems are overwhelmed which is leading to alarming fatality rates …  If community transmission becomes widespread we will have lost the opportunity gained by closing the border. International advice is that for each case we may be missing nine.”

Saturday March 21

11.15am: Likely community spread in NZ

There are 14 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Two of those have no known link to overseas travel. “We cannot rule out a risk of community transmission,” Ashley Bloomfield has told reporters. 

12.15pm: Alert level system announced, NZ goes to level two

“The world has changed, and it has changed very quickly,” Jacinda Ardern has said in an address from her office on the ninth floor at the Beehive.

“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.”

A new alert system for Covid-19 would come into play, the prime minister announced. It may apply nationwide or regionally. At all levels, essential services such as supermarkets and pharmacies will remain available. 

Under level one “Covid-19 is here but contained”. Measures include border measures, contact tracing, limits on mass gatherings.

Under level two, “the disease is contained but risks are growing”. Measures include stricter border protections, event restrictions and working from home where possible.

Under level three, “the disease is increasingly difficult to contain”. That would mean closing public venues and non-essential businesses shutting their doors.

Under level four, “we have sustained transmission”. That means the end of almost all contact. Apart from essential services, everyone would be required to stay at home.

12.25pm: New Zealand moves to alert level two

“I know many New Zealanders are anxious. The alert system is designed to offer certainty around future action and the ability for people to plan and prepare for any future eventuality. Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19,” said Ardern.

12.55pm: ‘Time for maximal measures’

Public health expert Michael Baker says level two is insufficient. “Unfortunately we’re still underestimating this virus, this pandemic, as every country on Earth has done, with the exception of some Asian countries who have been through SARS, who know what is involved,” he told RNZ.

“The word ‘proportionate’ keeps coming up. But we are against a threat here we have never encountered before… I think now is the time for absolutely maximal measures. I would say it’s time for level three, possibly level four is what we need to do.”

1.15pm: Ardern and Bloomfield speak

Addressing media at the Beehive, the prime minister and director general of health have elaborated on the new measures.

“We do need to be prepared that regions or the country could move to level three,” said Ardern.

Bloomfield said level two was right for now. “We believe that’s the right place to be. It’s under very constant review.”

“One thing we should remember is that this will be with us for some time. So we have to be sure that when we move, we are able to sustain our response. This will not leave in weeks. It will be here for some time,” said Ardern.

2.35pm: Te Whānau-ā-Apanui declare rāhui 

“In light of the pandemic Covid-19 plaguing the country and the world, we have had to take proactive measures to protect our most vulnerable, our iwi and our elderly,” Te Whānau-ā-Apanui leader Rawiri Waititi has announced. “No one is allowed in our iwi borders until the rāhui has been lifted.”

Sunday March 22

7am: Virus spreads globally

More than 21,000 cases have now been recorded in the US. New York state has reported 5,683 cases, with 43 deaths in New York City. Columbia University researchers are predicting that even if the US is able to cut its transmission rate in half, they would still expect to have 650,000 people infected in the next two months. 

8.30am: New Zealand in level two

Microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles and illustrator Toby Morris have expressed the science for many weeks now. Today they explained just how critical individuals’ decision-making is in preventing the spread of the virus.

1.15pm: 14 new cases

The new positive cases bring New Zealand’s total to 66. None of the new cases is thought to be the result of community spread, Ashley Bloomfield said at the 1pm briefing.

3.30pm: Epidemiologists speak out

A number of public health experts, including Sir David Skegg, are calling for wider testing in the face of possible community transmission. A separate group of doctors is urging more radical action in a petition to the director general of health.

4.40pm: Rest home staffer tests positive

Residents of Ellerslie Gardens rest home in Auckland have been placed in isolation after a nurse tested positive for Covid-19.

8.00pm: Auckland schools close 

Marist College in Mt Albert, Mt Roskill Grammar and Glendowie College have all closed for at least 72 hours after people linked to the schools returned positive Covid-19 tests.

Monday March 23

7.30am: Cabinet to meet via Zoom

Cabinet will meet this morning to decide whether to shift the alert level. Half will be joining online. Overnight, Italy reported 651 deaths from Covid-19. The number of cases confirmed worldwide is now over 340,000.

8am: Bond buy-up

New Zealand’s central bank, the Reserve Bank, has announced a huge buy-up of government bonds, aka a “Large Scale Asset Purchase programme”, aka quantitative easing.

1pm: Two likely community cases

There are 36 new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Two have no clear link to overseas travel and are being treated as community transmission.

“The prime minister will update the country later on the alert level, which is a result of and informed by those cases of community transmission,” Ashley Bloomfield told media. “It’s a cabinet decision. Even if we advise something, the cabinet has to discuss and make a decision.”

Just over 1,200 tests were conducted yesterday, bringing the total of completed tests to 7,400. Which means that one in every 74 tests is returning positive.

Bloomfield said there were sufficient ventilators to provide “around 180 ICU beds as it is, fully staffed, and the ability, with our current ventilator capacity, to treble that”.

1.15pm: National suspends election campaign

Simon Bridges has asked all his MPs and candidates to put campaigning on hold.

“I have offered the prime minister my full support during this crisis, providing they move expeditiously enough,” he said. “We will work in a supportive and constructive way in the interests of New Zealanders. I have also offered the government the services of our MPs and staff to assist where we can.”

2.05pm: NZ to move to alert level three lockdown, level four in 48 hours

The prime minister has announced an immediate lift in the Covid-19 alert status from level two to level three, with a move to level four in 48 hours, which will require a total lockdown apart from essential services. It will stay that way for at least four weeks. “I hope then we will be able to ease these restrictions,” said Jacinda Ardern, speaking at the Beehive.

“We now have 102 cases, but so did Italy once … I do not underestimate what I am asking New Zealanders to do,” said Ardern. “It is huge. I know it will feel daunting.”

She said: “If community transmission takes off in New Zealand the number of cases will double every five days. If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die.”

It would “help give our healthcare system a fighting chance”, said Ardern.

She concluded: 

New modelling considered by the Cabinet today suggests that without the measures I have just announced up to tens of thousands of New Zealanders could die from Covid-19.

Everything you will all give up for the next few weeks, all of the lost contact with others, all of the isolation, and difficult time entertaining children – it will literally save lives. Thousands of lives.

The worst case scenario is simply intolerable. It would represent the greatest loss of New Zealanders’ lives in our country’s history. I will not take that chance.

I would rather make this decision now, and save those lives, and be in lockdown for a shorter period, than delay, see New Zealanders lose loved ones and their contact with each other for an even longer period. I hope you are all with me on that …

I am in no doubt that the measures I have announced today will cause unprecedented economic and social disruption. But they are necessary.

I have one final message. Be kind. I know people will want to act as enforcers. And I understand that, people are afraid and anxious. We will play that role for you. What we need from you is to support one another. Go home tonight and check in on your neighbours. Start a phone tree with your street. Plan how you’ll keep in touch with one another. We will get through this together, but only if we stick together. Be strong and be kind.

2.15pm: Wage subsidy scaled up

Grant Robertson announced the wage subsidy scheme would cover all businesses, self-employed people, contractors, registered charities, non-government organisations, incorporated societies and post-settlement governance entities. He also announced a freeze on rent increases and said the government would “look to extend no-cause terminations to protect people during this difficult time”. 

3.35pm: ‘We stand absolutely supportive’ 

National leader Simon Bridges backed the lockdown call. “I’d just encourage everyone to stay calm, and to follow the instructions they’ll be getting from government, from officials and from the various essential services they will be in contact with,” he said. “We stand absolutely supportive of what the government has done, and urge all New Zealanders to get behind it.”

Tuesday March 24

7.20am: Border quarantine signalled

The prime minister has indicated that self-isolation may not be enough for New Zealanders arriving at home. The volume of arrivals meant “having every single one of [those returning] quarantined at the border simply wouldn’t have been possible,” she said. They were now, however, considering an “extra layer of guarantee”.

11.25am: US ‘soon open for business’

America will soon be “open for business”, the president of the US, Donald Trump, has announced, dismissing suggestions it might be three or four months until normality resumes. “Our country was not built to be shut down,” he said. “This is not a country that was built for this. It was not built to be shut down.”

1.20pm: 40 new confirmed cases

With 40 new confirmed cases, the total reported cases hits 155. Four of those are classified as community transmission. Ashley Bloomfield said he was confident stocks of PPE and ventilators were sufficient to deal with the incoming wave of infections. Of the lockdown measure, he said, “There is a clear consensus among public health professionals and scientists that it is better to do this sooner rather than later and gives New Zealand the best chance of breaking the chain of community transmission. This will require all our efforts, and I strongly urge all New Zealanders to play their part.”

2.35pm: New Zealanders overseas told to stay put

Winston Peters has advised New Zealanders still overseas to consider “sheltering in place” – staying where they are – rather than attempting to come home. “Since 18 March, we have been warning New Zealanders offshore that the window for flying home was closing. A week later, it has now almost completely closed,” he said.

3.15pm: Bubble up

The prime minister has urged people to think of the way they live as a “bubble”. 

“Whatever your bubble is for the month is the bubble that you must maintain. That has to be it. As soon as you start opening up contact with different individuals, if that person did the same with their different individuals, that’s when the risk grows.

“So I’m asking people to just apply common sense and common principles. The same small group has to be your bubble for the month. If that means that you’re a couple that is split up, you’re each other’s bubble, and share care with your children. That’s it. That’s your bubble. Apply common sense, keep your distance from anyone outside of your bubble and that’s how we’ll get through this.”

4.45pm: Supermarket staff facing abuse

Supermarkets continue to be overrun. There has been widespread abuse of staff, Countdown’s Kiri Hannifin told RNZ. “They’re putting up with terrible behaviour. It’s not on and it’s not fair. We’re better than this … It makes my heart very sore.”

It was clear, she said, that the “message isn’t getting through” about stocks being plentiful. The stores were introducing a range of measures to ensure the safety of the physical premises. She urged people to hold off the online shopping in favour of vulnerable people who had no alternative.

11pm: The Warehouse is closed

After a lot of back and forth about its essential-ness, the Warehouse has accepted it should not be open under level four rules. Liquor stores, too.

Wednesday March 25

7am: Fears over US outbreak

The World Health Organisation has warned the US could become the next Covid hotspot given the “very large acceleration in cases”. There are over 46,500 confirmed cases in the country and nearly 600 deaths

1.00pm: State of emergency declared

As 47 new positive tests for Covid-19 are announced, New Zealand has been formally placed into a state of emergency, providing a range of new powers

2.20pm: Ardern speaks in parliament

“We could have waited to plan every intricate detail … but every hour we wait is one more person, two more people, three more people exposed to Covid-19. That is why we did not wait.” The demands “will be enforced, and we will be the enforcer”.

Invoking the Christchurch earthquake response, Ardern said this is “a national emergency to preserve our way of life”.

3.00pm: New measures for arrivals

The prime minister has announced anyone arriving in New Zealand will be screened at the border, and those showing symptoms will be tested. If a positive result is returned, the person will be placed in an “approved facility” for isolation. The same will apply to anyone without but without a clear isolation plan.

6.30pm: Emergency alert sent to phones nationwide

An emergency mobile alert has been sent to people around the country stating that the country was moving to Covid-19 alert level four from 11.59pm. “This message is for all of New Zealand. We are depending on you,” said the alert. “Follow the rules and stay home. Act as if you have Covid-19. This will save lives.

“Remember: Where you stay tonight is where YOU MUST stay from now on. You must only be in physical contact with those you are living with. It is likely Level 4 measures will stay in place for a number of weeks. Lets [sic] all do our bit to unite against Covid-19. Kia kaha.”

One Spinoff staff member described the alert as sounding “like a demon possessed my phone”.

11.59pm: New Zealand enters level four lockdown

New Zealand will remain in alert level three until April 27, then move to alert level two on May 14 and level one on June 9.

Keep going!