The end is in sight for New Zealanders restricting their activities to curtail coronavirus – but we will have to wait slightly longer than initially planned

New Zealand will spend another week in lockdown before moving down from Alert Level 4 at the end of April 27, then spending two weeks at Alert Level 3, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.

Ardern said the brief extension was needed to lock in the gains made so far in the fight against Covid-19 and ensure the country did not go backwards.

Speaking at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday afternoon, Ardern praised progress to date, saying the country had one of the lowest rates of infection per 100,000 in the world.

“We have done what very few countries have been able to do – we have stopped a wave of devastation.”

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield was confident there was no widespread undetected community transmission in New Zealand, she said, with only eight cases where there was no obvious reason for the infection.

“In short, the effort of our team of five million has broken the chain of transmission.”

Ardern said the country would move out of Level 4 at 11.59pm Monday April 27, one week from today, then holding at Alert Level 3 for two weeks before reviewing how progress was going.

The extension would cost just two more business days compared to the initial exit date, but would provide significant health and economic returns, she said.

“The sacrifice made to date has been huge and the Cabinet wanted to make sure we lock in our gains and give ourselves some additional certainty.”

Once at Level 3, 400,000 more New Zealanders could return to work from key sectors like construction, manufacturing and forestry starting up again.

“Having our economy operating with a low threat of the virus is the competitive advantage we can seize if we get this next phase right. And I believe we can.”

But Ardern warned Kiwis would need to be even more vigilant at Level 3 to keep breaking the chain of transmission. 

“And remember that we remain at Level 4 until you wake up next Tuesday. Let’s stick with our plan and the mission we have. Stay strong, stay home, let’s finish what we started.”

“All of the evidence I’ve seen to date shows that New Zealanders have done an exceptional job by and large of sticking with what has been extraordinary as compared to the rest of the world. We’ve done something that I think is incredible.”

Asked whether she had been expecting to leave lockdown this week as originally planned, Ardern said: “I’ve always been willing to wait for the latest information and data we have, to give us the best modelling we can, and the best advice we can.

“So we only started considering it over the weekend when we had that information all in front of us so we could do it in real time.”

While it was not impossible that the country could move back to Level 4 if necessary, she did not believe there were any nasty surprises in store given the quality of the data coming through regarding infection rates.

She was confident that Kiwis would continue to stick to the restrictions put in place even as time went on.

“All of the evidence I’ve seen to date shows that New Zealanders have done an exceptional job by and large of sticking with what has been extraordinary as compared to the rest of the world. We’ve done something that I think is incredible.”

A move to Level 3 would require a higher level of trust from the public, and police would still continue to carry out enforcement action as needed.

Businesses would be allowed to prepare for reopening this week, granted access to restock shelves and undertake other necessary work, as long as they maintained physical distancing and hygiene principles.

“This is not an invitation to trade, to open, to restart – it is only an invitation to prepare.”

Bridges: Govt ‘hasn’t done groundwork’

National leader Simon Bridges said the extension was a sign that despite the good work of New Zealanders, the Government “hasn’t done the groundwork on their side of the bargain” when it came to leaving lockdown.

“Every expert now for weeks has been really clear on the things that needed to happen in testing, tracing, PPE…regrettably the Government by its own standards and rhetoric isn’t where it should be on those things.”

The move to Level 3 would not be a panacea for businesses struggling to stay afloat, given the stringent restrictions that would still be in place, he said.

“It’s a situation that is more restrictive or will be more restrictive than what they’re doing in Australia already…

“Tens and tens of thousands, actually 10 percent of our workforce in retail won’t be able to operate normally – yup there’ll be a bit of online, but it’s really a lockdown or close to it in any other words.”

Bridges said the Government should follow the example set by Australia, which he claimed had provided greater freedom for businesses to operate in a safe way.

“it’s a model where they’ve chewed gum and walked at the same time, they’ve had great health outcomes to date, they can now talk about elimination and actually they’ve allowed people to keep their livelihoods, that’s a great way to think about this.”

A month in lockdown

The announcement comes just under a month after Ardern announced the lockdown, placing New Zealand at Alert Level 4 on the country’s then-nascent Covid-19 alert system.

Since March 25, New Zealanders’ movements and activities have been heavily restricted to curtail the spread of the virus, with only essential workers allowed to leave their homes (aside from trips to access essential services or undertake physical exercise).

Speaking on Sunday ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Ardern had said the decision on when to leave lockdown would be guided by several factors, including whether there were sufficiently rigorous and rapid case identification and contact tracing regimes in place; robust quarantine and border measures being adhered to; a reasonable level of certainty amongst experts and modellers that undetected community transmission was unlikely; and sufficient capacity within the health system.

The Government would also consider the broader effects of the restrictions on the economy and society as a whole, including public attitudes towards the measures and the acceptance of and compliance with regulations by people and businesses.

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

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