New Zealanders could be back attending larger gatherings and participating in more sports within a matter of weeks if we manage to continue successfully fighting COVID-19, the Prime Minister says.
Tuesday marks the first day of New Zealand under alert level 3, the "restrict" stage under the alert level framework. In summary, Kiwis can begin slightly expanding their bubbles, have takeaways delivered to them, and in some cases send their children back to school. More businesses can also now open if they limit face-to-face interaction with customers.
But this phase of the country's war on COVID-19 doesn't yet allow for socialising between friends. People are still told to stay at home other than for essential personal movement and only regional travel is allowed.
Greater freedom will come at alert level 2, which encourages 1 metre physical distancing and people to stay at home when they can, but also allows gatherings of up to 100 people indoors or 500 outdoors, public venues to reopen, and more sports and recreational activities to take place.
Currently, alert level 3 is expected to last until May 11, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet will review the latest data about COVID-19 in New Zealand and if the alert level needs to be extended. Ardern told The AM Show that the information officials will be looking at is similar to what was considered prior to leaving lockdown.
"Things that all New Zealanders would have seen over the last period of time that will continue to be the numbers we keep an eye on," she said.
"Whether or not we have community transmission, which at the moment, presently, we do not, whether or not we are keeping those case numbers low and managed, and, of course, our continuing ability to manage, with our contact tracing, our testing regime and so on.
If we are not managing, that does mean staying at level 3.
Asked if we were on track for level 2 within two weeks, Ardern said: "If we manage to sustain this. But it is a big if. We all now have to make sure our behaviour is in line with what we need to do."
"That is keeping [in your] bubble, work and learn from home if you can. If you do have a job that requires you to go into the workplace, keep your social distance. Unfortunately, that social time with others, not quite yet."
On Monday, the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said New Zealand had achieved its goal of eliminating COVID-19. That doesn't mean it had been eradicated or that we won't see more cases in the future, but that we have controlled the virus and have the ability to quickly stamp it out.
The majority of cases being recorded daily can now be linked to already confirmed cases. For example, on Monday, New Zealand recorded five cases. Three were linked to St Margaret's Hospital and Rest Home and two were linked to other known cases. Only one case since April 1 is still under investigation while, overall, just 3 percent of locally acquired cases have an unknown source.
Surveillance testing has also been ramped up with the rollout of mobile clinics and testing at the likes of supermarkets. Work is also underway to better New Zealand's ability to contact trace. Currently, 10,000 calls can be made per day with 185 cases able to be traced per day, which will eventually scale up to 300. A contract tracing phone application is expected within the next two weeks, although this won't replace work by those in the public health units tracing contacts.
Ardern said while there may be trepidation as New Zealand moves to level 3, all Kiwis can be proud of what they have achieved. She said modelling prior to the lockdown had shown without significant action, the country could have seen more than 1000 cases recorded a day. As of Monday, New Zealand has 1469 cases and has had 19 deaths.
New Zealanders can feel really proud of what they have achieved. We set a framework, but we wouldn't have achieved it without the team of five million. But now we need to keep going.
"We don't have community transmission of COVID, but that doesn't mean there aren't burning embers of it out there. Our job, collectively, is to make sure that it doesn't set alight again. That is why this phase is so important."