New Zealanders will be guided on the coronavirus crisis by a new public alert system, the Government has announced

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has launched a new alert system to help Kiwis deal with the disruption and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ardern has also asked New Zealanders older than 70, with compromised immune systems, or other underlying conditions, to stay at home as much as possible, while urging everyone to eliminate non-essential travel around the country and begin working from home where possible.

In a live address to the nation, the Prime Minister said the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus outbreak was leading to previously unimaginable changes around the country, such as the closure of the nation’s borders. 

“I understand all of this rapid change creates anxiety and uncertainty, particularly when it changes how we live.”

To help guide the public through the outbreak, Ardern said the Government had decided to implement a Covid-19 alert system with four different levels:

– Alert level one, where Covid-19 was here but contained, with preparatory work such as border measures, contact tracing, and restrictions on mass gatherings.

– Alert level two, where the disease was contained but risks were growing along with the number of cases. Contact would be reduced, border measures would be increased, and people would be asked to work remotely.

– Alert level three, where the disease was increasingly difficult to contain and measures were stepped up, such as the closure of public and non-essential venues.

– Alert level four, where all contact was eliminated, people were asked to stay at home and all non-essential operations were closed.

Under all levels, supermarkets and essential services like pharmacies would remain open, which meant New Zealanders could and should continue to shop normally instead of panic buying.

Ardern said the country was currently at alert level two. with the risk of community transmission growing and additional measures needed to reduce the potential spread.

All New Zealanders over 70, with compromised immunity, or other underlying medical conditions, should stay at home as much as possible, with their family and friends providing support.

As “a core part of our government”, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters will not be subject to recommendations of restricted movement for over-70s, Jacinda Ardern says. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

However, during her press conference Ardern confirmed that Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, who is 74, would be working as usual despite the new recommendations.

“Obviously the Deputy Prime Minister we consider part of our essential team and a core part of our government … and so the Deputy Prime Minister will be continuing on in his role as business as usual, whilst applying the same kind of measures we are asking all parliamentarians to maintain at this time.”

While Peters earlier in the week flagged the possibility that he and Trade Minister David Parker may continue international travel to maintain foreign affairs and trade ties, Ardern flatly rebuffed that: “The Government will not be travelling overseas.”

Contingency plans were being developed for Cabinet, allowing it to “meet” virtually even if not all ministers were in the same room.

“I do want to start mitigating risks by breaking down the number of Cabinet members who are physically in the same space at the same time.”

She had also called Speaker Trevor Mallard to discuss a plan for Parliament that fit within the new alert levels, although such a move would need cross-party consensus through Parliament’s business committee.

Ardern said people also needed to start working differently and from home where possible, although that would not be possible for essential workers like health professionals as well as other sectors where that was impossible.

Everyone should also limit their movement around the country, cutting non-essential domestic travel to make it easier to track and contain the spread of Covid-19.

“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?”

Under the current alert level, schools would be closed if there was a direct case of coronavirus, but there was no need for wider closures at this stage.

Ardern said the new alert system would help with the “disruption and uncertainty” being caused by the pandemic.

“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.”

The Prime Minister told media the recommendations around curbing non-essential travel would not be enforced by law for the time being, with the Government instead trusting New Zealanders to make the right decision.

“Just ask yourself that simple question: is this essential travel?”

Air New Zealand – already suffering from the closure of New Zealand’s borders to international travel – had anticipated some of the requirements and were building physical distancing into their seating and ticketing arrangements for those who did still need to travel.

Ardern also reiterated that Kiwis did not need to panic buy, as at all alert levels supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential services would remain open.

“When people panic buy, it doesn’t allow time for restocking of shelves – it also potentially deprives someone who desperately needs a particular item from even being able to get one thing on their list that may be critical to them.”

She defended the Government’s decision not to move to a higher level, saying the country’s requirements were being constantly reviewed in line with public health advice.

“We have to make sure that when we move, that we are able to sustain our response – this will not be here for weeks, it will be here for some time.”

Community transmission ‘not ruled out’

Ardern’s announcement came after Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield announced on Saturday morning there had been 13 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed in the past 24 hours, bringing the overall number to 53 confirmed and four probable cases.

Bloomfield said officials had been unable to determine any link to overseas travel in at least two cases and could therefore not rule out a risk of community transmission.

One of the two cases is in Auckland. Neither they nor their partner has travelled overseas, although Bloomfield said the partner – whose test is processing – regularly comes in contact with people who do travel overseas.

The other person is in the Wairarapa, but no other details were given.

Bloomfield declined to label these cases community transmission, saying only: “It certainly raises the risk of that. The investigation is still ongoing. In the case of the Wairarapa person, there are a couple of close contacts who are still being tested as well so we’re awaiting the results of those tests.”

“We always knew cases apparently not linked to imported cases would happen and we are prepared,” he said.

“Physical distancing is fundamental to our collective response and we ask all New Zealanders to conscientiously play their part in following the guidelines relating to social contact and the ban on large gatherings.”

Read more of Newsroom’s Covid-19 coverage here. 

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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