New Zealand’s government will consider a move to lift all Covid-19 restrictions except border controls after Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, said an early lockdown of the country was on track to eliminate the virus “ahead of schedule.”
“Our strategy of going hard and early has paid off, in some cases beyond expectations and what modelling and data had predicted,” Ardern told reporters in the capital, Wellington, on Tuesday. Her comments came as health officials announced an 11th straight day of no new Covid-19 cases recorded in New Zealand.
It also increases the likelihood that New Zealand could jettison physical distancing measures entirely as early as next week, while other nations struggle to contain the coronavirus.
Only one person in New Zealand is still recovering from Covid-19 and they are not being treated in hospital, 22 people have died, no additional deaths were reported on Tuesday.
Ardern had earlier promised that her cabinet would consider by 22 June a move to the most relaxed suite of coronavirus rules, known as “level 1” restrictions, but she said on Tuesday that a decision would instead be made next Monday 8 June, providing there were no “unexpected” cases of Covid-19 recorded before then. If her government decides to further relax the rules, the move happen as early as next Wednesday.
While she has not detailed exactly what the so-called “level 1” alert entails, Ardern said on Tuesday that it would likely involve abandoning any remaining rules limiting gathering sizes or requiring physical distancing, meaning that life would largely return to normal.
Strict border controls would remain, however; returning New Zealanders and their families must spend two weeks in government-controlled isolation. Foreigners are not permitted to enter the country.
Ardern imposed a strict national shutdown on 25 March, when just over 200 cases of the coronavirus had been recorded in New Zealand and no one had died from it, and the rules have progressively eased since. The most stringent measures - which required most people to stay at home most of the time for about a month - were largely welcomed in New Zealand but have also generated debate about whether they had proved too harmful to businesses and the preservation of jobs.
“Because of our team of five million’s extraordinary commitment to beating Covid, that means we have the enviable situation of having choices,” Ardern said on Tuesday. Many other countries had experienced spikes in cases as lockdown restrictions relaxed, she added.
“So far that tail or spike has not eventuated and there is increasing optimism that we will not see any cases within the transmission cycle since moving to level 2,” Ardern said, referring to the current level of restrictions in place. Currently, businesses and schools in New Zealand are allowed to open, with physical distancing measures in place. Gatherings are limited to 100 people.
Those rules were broken on Monday as crowds of thousands gathered in New Zealand’s largest cities to protest against the killing of George Floyd by police officers in the United States.
Ardern’s political opponents pointed to the gatherings as evidence she should immediately abandon all measures to quell the spread of Covid-19, rather than waiting until next week to make a decision.
“We’ve put in place the rules, it’s up to the police to determine how to enforce them,” she said, when asked about the large protests. Officers had not moved to break up Monday’s peaceful gatherings.
“I absolutely understand the sentiment and the urgency that was felt by the individuals that were there,” Ardern earlier told Radio New Zealand, adding that she did not want to ban peaceful protest. But she could not “condone” the gatherings, she said separately.
“We have the rules there for a reason and it is to look after people’s public health,” she said.
Stuart Nash, the police minister, branded the protests “irresponsible.” Demonstrators said they were also opposing racism within the police and a recent trial of armed police.
Ardern said she “totally opposed” the widespread arming of police officers, but added that she could not intervene in operational policing matters. “No one in New Zealand will claim perfection here, no one,” she told Radio New Zealand, when asked about racism in the country. “I understand the sense of urgency people felt in response to what they see.”