New Zealand plans to ease coronavirus lockdown in a week

Jacinda Ardern says: ‘We have done what very few countries have been able to do. We have stopped a wave of devastation’

New Zealanders will remain in total lockdown until 27 April prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said, with restrictions easing if elimination progress is maintained.

Speaking at the Beehive in Wellington, Ardern said New Zealand was in with a fighting chance of eliminating the disease, and the number of deaths was low enough that she still received a phone call for each one.

“We have done what very few countries have been able to do. We have stopped a wave of devastation,” Ardern said.

“Our transmission rate, the number of cases each person with the virus passes it onto, is now 0.48, less than half a person each. Overseas the average is 2.5 people. We have amongst the lowest number of confirmed cases per 100,000 people in the world.”

The prime minister said New Zealand had a “relatively low proportion of serious cases”, and according to the Oxford University coronavirus government response tracker, one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

Overall 1,400 people have become infected with coronavirus in New Zealand, and 12 people have died, all older people with pre-existing health conditions. On Monday, nine new cases were confirmed by the Ministry of Health, but random testing of 1,000 people in the community had returned no positive results.

“Nearly every case identified since April 1 is as a result of overseas travel or contact with someone with the virus, often in existing clusters,” Ardern said. “Our testing has scaled up and we have now tested over 85,000 New Zealanders, one of the highest testing rates per capita in the world.”

The director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said he was confident community transmission of the virus has not taken hold, but he, and other experts advising the government, had urged them to extend the level four lockdown, to be “extra safe” and solidify the gains already made in lowering infection rates.

The government’s decision to conditionally ease restrictions from next Monday night has taken a middle path between those urging an immediate end to lockdown for the sake of the gasping economy, and those urging an extension to give the elimination strategy a fighting chance.

Moving to level three overnight on Monday 27 April would see many more businesses able to trade, including those involved in takeaways and food deliveries, the construction sector and the forestry sector. The move to level three would have significant benefits for the economy, Ardern said.

Social lives would largely be unchanged however, with Kiwis still urged to remain at home unless taking exercise or fetching supplies. “Bubbles” could be marginally expanded, however, to include close family or those who might be alone or isolated in the community, she said. Schools would be open, but students should remain at home, if they could.

Cabinet would make a decision whether level three lockdown would move to two on 11 May.

New Zealand entered lockdown on 25 March, when there were fewer than 150 cases of the virus and no deaths.

Lockdown has been widely complied with countrywide, despite stringent regulations, which have dictated Kiwis stay in their homes around the clock unless shopping for essentials such as food or medicine, or taking a brief respite of exercise within their neighbourhood.

The first two weeks of lockdown saw widespread confusion as to what and wasn’t permitted, and the health minister David Clark was demoted after flouting the rules and taking his family to a beach 20km from their home.

There have been some isolated reports of lockdown parties, but overall police have praised Kiwis adherence to the rules.

New Zealand is pursuing an elimination strategy and is one of few worldwide to do so, but has advantages in being able to completely shut down its borders, having a small number of cases, and cities that are not so densely packed as the likes of New York and London.

Epidemiologists working on New Zealand’s Covid-15 strategy urged the prime minister to stay the course and choose the conservative path, saying if the country came out of lockdown too soon, months of good work would be lost.

Scientist Dr Michelle Dickinson, who participated in a press conference for children with the prime minister, praised the government’s decision.

“While other countries show no sign of any control of Covid-19 I’m so proud of NZ & what we’ve done as a nation,” Dickinson said on Twitter.

“We had some of the toughest lockdown rules in the world, but today we can be optimistic about coming out of it on Monday & feeling safe that this is the right decision”


Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

The GuardianTramp

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