Jacinda Ardern has warned that “perfection” in response to the Covid-19 pandemic “is just not possible” as she urged New Zealanders against complacency and laid out her government’s plans for future outbreaks.
“Every country we have sought to replicate or have drawn from in the fight against Covid has now experienced further community outbreaks,” Ardern said in a speech at New Zealand’s parliament in Wellington.
“We only need to look to [the Australian states of] Victoria, New South Wales; Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea to see examples of other places that like us had the virus under control at a point in time only to see it emerge again.”
It has been 75 days since New Zealand last recorded a case of Covid-19 infection from an unknown source, and, apart from border restrictions, everyday life has returned to normal in the country. All 27 current cases of Covid-19 are among travellers returning to the country, all of them diagnosed during a mandatory two-week period of government-run isolation for returnees.
Ardern noted that “frontline border and airline staff and staff in our managed isolation facilities are in daily contact with returnees carrying the virus,” and that community outbreaks in New Zealand could be the result. Several people have also absconded from the isolation hotels – one of whom was later discovered to have the virus.
“When we closed our borders on the 19th of March there were 240,000 cases in the world in total,” Ardern said. “It’s 50 times worse than that now.”
New Zealanders were returning home from some of the countries worst-affected by the pandemic, she said. Modelling provided to her government had suggested there would be more than 100,000 new cases a day in the US by the end of the month, nearly 70,000 cases a day in India and nearly 10,000 cases a day across Europe by early August.
Only New Zealanders, their families and certain essential workers are permitted to enter the country. Ardern said those with the legal right to return would not be barred.
But she warned that plans approved by her cabinet would allow for lockdowns by neighbourhood, city, region, or even – as a last, most drastic resort – the whole country, if the virus once again spread to the community.
A stringent national lockdown during March and April was widely credited with quelling the virus’ spread. Fewer than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in New Zealand, with 22 deaths.
But the country’s success has made future risk at times feel remote, a concern shared by epidemiologists, and one that Ardern addressed in Wednesday’s speech.
“The Covid tracer app, and whatever other means of recording where you have been remains vital,” she said, referring to the government’s contact tracing app, which is optional for both businesses and customers, and has not been widely downloaded or used.
“Every time you step into the world I want you to ask this question: ‘If I come into contact with Covid today, how will I know, and how will others know?’”
Judith Collins, the newly minted leader of the centre-right opposition National party, said Ardern was “right to think about a plan” for future waves of infection. She agreed with the government that it was unsafe to open borders to Australia or other nations, but said the government needed to do a better job of explaining that use of its contact-tracing app was needed when the country felt like the threat of the virus had vanished.
Of New Zealand’s population of 5 million, there have been 596,000 registrations for the official app, and 1.4m scans of QR codes.
“It’s sort of mixed messaging,” Collins said. “People will do it if they think they should.”
Elimination of the virus remains her government’s goal, Ardern said, and urged people to be vigilant about hand washing and for those who are sick to stay at home.
“No one wants to go backwards but the reality is our fight against the virus is not over and we must have a plan at the ready to protect our current position if it comes back,” she said. “And I believe we can do that.”