New Zealand has recorded its first day of no new cases of Covid-19 since a stringent national lockdown began more than one month ago.
The public has been engrossed by the daily release of case numbers by the health ministry each afternoon – especially as a deadline looms for the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to decide whether the country’s lockdown rules will ease further next Monday.
One week into level-3 restrictions, however, officials sounded a cautious note as breaches of the shutdown rules continued to rise.
“It is cause for celebration … It is important that we reflect that it is symbolic of the effort that everybody has put in,” said Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s director-general of health, as he announced zero new cases of the coronavirus on Monday. “I don’t want to downplay that but once again, we need to be continuing vigilance.”
Ardern also warned that the public was “jeopardising” the good result by breaching the lockdown rules.
“Any gains you’ve seen at the moment are actually from the lockdown period,” she said, referring to the long incubation of the virus, which is thought to be up to two weeks.
Adding that she was “a perfectionist,” Ardern said she would revisit the numbers later this week when the more relaxed rules had had time to bed in.
“We need to not get ahead of ourselves, stick to our bubble, and finish what we started,” she said.
There have been 1,487 confirmed and probable cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, with 86% of them now recovered. Seven people are in hospital. Twenty people have died of the virus; no additional deaths were reported on Monday.
Bloomfield said that one person already registered in the total as a probable case had had their status changed to “confirmed” for Covid-19. But he added that the good result was just “one moment in time.”
“We are still wanting to be sure that there is no undetected community transmission,” he said.
The last time there were no new Covid-19 cases on a single day in New Zealand was on 16 March, ahead of the national lockdown which was brought in on 25 March and before the daily briefings by health officials began – when the total number of cases was rising by one or two at a time.
New Zealand’s government has won international praise, including from the World Health Organization, for the swift and strict lockdown imposed by Ardern as cases in the country began to increase more rapidly. No one had died of the virus at the time the shutdown was imposed.
Measures were relaxed slightly last Monday, when the national alert level for the coronavirus was reduced just before midnight. The looser rules allowed slightly more freedom of movement and more businesses to re-open, although they can only trade in completely contactless ways.
It has also led to more breaches of the rules, New Zealand’s police said. Officers have taken action against more than 500 people for flouting the restrictions over the past week. Nearly 150 of them faced prosecution, while the rest escaped with warnings.
“We did see at the weekend that it can be easy to start slackening off,” Bloomfield said
The breaches included two separate incidents on Sunday in which people out fishing required rescue by helicopter. Fishing by boat is a banned activity under the current rules.
Bloomfield said the “real test” of how well New Zealanders were observing the rules will come later in the week, when lockdown breaches since last Monday would become apparent, based on the virus’ incubation period.
Ardern’s cabinet was due to make a decision next Monday about whether the lockdown rules should be eased further. A lower alert level, if imposed, would likely be implemented next Wednesday. One measure she will be considering in her decision will be the speed of the country’s contact tracing, which was criticised early on in the pandemic. But another will be New Zealanders’ behaviour to date.
“It’s not just the number of cases or the pattern,” said Bloomfield, “But the level to which people are taking seriously the expectations, particularly around physical distancing, hygiene measures and not really squandering the advantage we’ve created for ourselves.”