From secret teleconferences with business leaders to dire Cabinet papers warning of mass death to come, Marc Daalder reports a behind-the-scenes look at the path to New Zealand’s national lockdown

In the dark days of late March, with Covid-19 cases on the rise, borders shutting without notice and paragons of pandemic readiness plunging into lockdown, New Zealand faced a stark decision: follow the path of Iran, Italy and Spain, where doctors were triaging patients for too few ventilators, or enter lockdown when the country had fewer than 100 cases and no deaths.

Jacinda Ardern chose the latter, telling New Zealanders in a harrowing speech on the afternoon of March 23 that the country was now in Level 3 and would move to Level 4 two days later.

“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,” she said at the time.

Seen from an apartment above, a patient is attended by paramedics in PPE in Brussels in March 2020. Photo: Flickr/ Miguel Discart

The alert level system

But just three days earlier, official advice had recommended New Zealand remain at Level 2 for at least 30 days while assessing the situation.

A paper detailing the alert level system went to Cabinet on Friday, March 20.

“The next 2-3 weeks is critical to New Zealand’s COVID-19 response. Our ability to stamp it out depends on ramping up testing to identify cases, scaling up contact tracing and enforcing self-isolation,” the paper reported.

“We recommend New Zealand move completely to Level 2 immediately and remain there for up to 30 days initially. The move to Level 2 reflects the heightened risk of importing Covid-19 cases at this time as many New Zealanders return home from overseas and we see an uptick in reported cases here.”

On Sunday 22 March, a day after the country went to Alert Level 2,with requests for social distancing, people queue outside a cafe on Cuba St. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

While the paper conceded that “maintaining public health may require us to move up the alert levels”, there seemed to be little appetite in Government for a move to lockdown at that stage. The day before, rumours had spread to just about every media outlet in the country that a lockdown was in the works – possibly as a result of a leaked screenshot of the alert level framework – and Ardern rebuffed these concerns at a press conference in Rotorua.

“I cannot go round and dismiss every rumour I see on social media, as much as I’d like to,” she said. “When you see those messages, remember that unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth.”

Likewise, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield told reporters that day that he hadn’t heard any discussion of a lockdown in Government.

By Saturday, that started to change. After Ardern announced the creation of the alert level system in a presidential-style address from her office, she took questions besides Bloomfield in the Beehive Theaterette. Although she had just said New Zealand was now at Level 2, reporters asked about pressure by epidemiologist Michael Baker to push New Zealand into lockdown.

“There are public health experts who have said we should be doing exactly what we’re doing,” she said.

18 months in lockdown

Even then, however, the ground was beginning to shift under Ardern’s feet. Just hours earlier, Bloomfield had fronted a press conference in the Ministry of Health’s headquarters up the road from Parliament to reveal that two new cases of Covid-19 couldn’t be linked to the border.

He was reluctant to say that these were community transmission, but admitted that it couldn’t be ruled out.

Ashley Bloomfield briefs journalists on potential first cases of community transmission. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Likewise, the Cabinet paper outlining the alert level system from the previous day had said it was “likely” there was community transmission of the virus in New Zealand.

“We do not know whether community transmission is occurring in New Zealand. Epidemiologists consider it likely there is some ‘silent’ transmission occurring in the community. However, we have not had any seriously ill patients with COVID-19 pneumonia, which generally develops over 2-3 weeks from infection,” the paper stated.

The threat of that silent transmission was evident: “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. Even with no further imported cases, if we have missed early cases transmitting silently, we could suddenly face an exponential rise in cases as has happened elsewhere.”

Perhaps influenced by this, and by the two mystery cases from that morning, Ardern laid the groundwork for a potential escalation in the short-term during the alert level press conference.

“My message to everyone again: We are at Level 2. We constantly need to be prepared that we may move, very quickly, up and down levels. It may be one region, it may be one area, it may be the whole country,” she said.

Ardern knew that any escalation into lockdown couldn’t occur with the flip of a switch. The Prime Minister would need to bring the country with her – already, anti-lockdown sentiment overseas was undermining public health responses in other countries. That meant preparing people for grappling with the virus in the long haul – especially because the most recent scientific advice to the Government raised the possibility of two months in lockdown, one month out, for the next 12 to 18 months. 

“Should outbreaks occur, a suppression strategy aims to reverse epidemic growth through tougher public health measures – eg by more intense physical distancing and travel restrictions. When cases fall, public health measures can be eased slightly. This cycle repeats itself,” a March 18 briefing stated, before pointing to the “squiggly green line” in the below chart as the blueprint for suppression.

Staring down the barrel of 18 months in lockdown – a doomsday scenario which would involved rationed food and getting unqualified people to carry out emergency health procedures – Ardern had to ready the population for the worst case scenario.

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

This was only the latest move in a pattern of stepping up restrictions and then preparing people for the next one. On March 14, cruise ships were banned from New Zealand and new entrants were required to self-isolate at home. On March 16, gatherings of more than 500 people were banned. On March 19, the mass gathering restrictions were tightened to 100 or more people and the borders were fully closed. On March 21, the alert level system was revealed and New Zealand was placed at Level 2.

This also reflected the breakneck speed of policy development in the heat of the crisis.

“It was all such a blur – things were moving at pace,” Bloomfield recalled of the leadup to lockdown when asked this week.

On March 10, for example, a senior Government official mused that a self-isolation requirement for all entrants was something that might be considered in the coming months. Five days later, it was announced as Government policy on national TV.

‘A war effort’

By Sunday, March 22, what had seemed unthinkable just days earlier looked increasingly likely. New Zealand would be moving to lockdown.

A secret teleconference between Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and business leaders Stephen Tindall, Rob Fyfe, Sam Morgan, Graeme Hart, Nick Mowbray and Craig Heatley came to the same conclusion. Although Ardern was already convinced of the need for harsher measures (but was unable to explicitly say so as the decision was subject to Cabinet deliberations), the call reassured her that the business community would back the move – and calls from the Opposition the next morning for New Zealand to move to Level 4 similarly buoyed her hopes that people would comply with the lockdown and that it would be effective.

Late on Sunday evening, Fyfe emailed Robertson and cc’ed in the other attendees to reiterate what had been discussed: New Zealand would move to Level 3 and then, when protocols and resources were in place, to Level 4.

“We need to mobilise this as a war effort. We must act with urgency, every day of delay results in more body bags!” Fyfe wrote.

“The Prime Minister is committed to a fast escalation to alert level 3 and then 4 with a goal of containing and then eradicating COVID-19. The Prime Minister will make a further announcement tomorrow – we believe it is essential that the language is sufficient to shock people into action. We want those people who can keep their kids home from school to be motivated to do so following this announcement, we want retailers shutting down their stores, we want bar and restaurant owners to choose to close down their businesses and not wait to the formal announcement of level 3, hopefully later in the week.”

Fyfe himself  would work with then-Police Commissioner Mike Bush and John Ombler in the all-of-government response to Covid-19. His role would “align and leverage the business effort behind the national ‘war response effort’. Mike and I will require a financial authority that allows us to move fast and spend money where required to achieve turnaround of hours, not days.”

Between the teleconference and Fyfe’s email, Mowbray had already been in touch with the Ministry of Health’s chief science advisor Ian Town to inform him that three million masks and hundreds of thousands of test kits had been obtained.

Still, Fyfe’s perception of the situation was grim.

“This is a fraction of what we will need as we head in to Level 4 and beyond,” he wrote.

‘New Zealand is at a critical moment’

The paper delivered to Cabinet the next morning authorising the alert level escalation was no less foreboding.

“Cases over the recent days suggest community transmissions of COVID-19 is highly likely. If community transmission becomes widespread we will have lost the opportunity gained by closing the border. Once community transmission is established the number of cases will double every five days,” the paper stated.

“COVID-19 poses a unique threat to humans and our way of life. We have no base level of immunity as humans have not previously been exposed to the novel coronavirus. There is no vaccine and no proven effective treatments. New Zealand is at a critical moment. If we do not act soon, we risk an exponential growth in cases. We therefore must seize the opportunity to apply tougher containment measures to increase our chances of succeeding at our suppression strategy.

“We must continue to learn from the experience of other countries’ trajectories. The experiences of Iran and Italy illustrated what can happen if action is taken too late and health systems become overwhelmed. The experiences of Singapore and Taiwan, by contrast, illustrate what can be achieved by an island nation which acts quickly and decisively with effective measures and high compliance.”

Jacinda Ardern listens as then-Health Minister David Clark talks to reporters in mid-March 2020. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In the end, Cabinet approved the move. At 1:45pm on March 23, Ardern appeared before the nation.

“Like the rest of the world, we are facing the potential for devastating impacts from this virus. But, through decisive action, and through working together, do we have a small window to get ahead of it. We are fortunate to still be some way behind the majority of overseas countries in terms of cases, but the trajectory is clear. Act now, or risk the virus taking hold as it has elsewhere,” she said.

“We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once. Now the virus has overwhelmed their health system and hundreds of people are dying every day. The situation here is moving at pace, and so must we. Our plan is simple. We can stop the spread by staying at home and reducing contact. Now is the time to act. That’s why Cabinet met today and agreed that effective immediately, we will move to Alert Level 3 nationwide. After 48 hours, the time required to ensure essential services are in place, we will move to Level 4.”

After laying out what Level 3 and Level 4 would mean for people – who had to stay home, what services would remain open, what the public health objectives were – she ended with 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 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.”

State Highway 1, central Wellington, during lockdown Level 4. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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