New Zealand lifts lockdown as it declares virus eliminated, for now

Damien Cave, The New York Times

Posted at Jun 09 2020 01:42 AM

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Yiming Woo, Reuters/File Photo

Crowds will gather again in New Zealand’s restaurants. Weddings will include as many hugs and guests as the happy couple wants — and even social distancing will not be needed.

New Zealand has no active coronavirus cases and no new cases, officials said Monday, declaring that life could return to a form of pre-pandemic normal. Since the pandemic began, the country has reported 1,504 cases and 22 deaths nationally, and has been widely praised for its stringent approach to combating the virus.

“While the job is not done, there is no denying this is a milestone,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, adding: “Thank you, New Zealand.”

The country of 5 million people is one of only a few nations that appear to have eradicated the virus, at least for now. Iceland is another.

Ardern, who led an approach she described as “go hard go early” — with a severe lockdown that began in late March — said the country could now focus on economic recovery and bolstering local businesses.

“Retail is back without limitation,” she said. “Hospitality is back without limitation; public transport and travel across the country is fully open.”

The country had already begun to ease some initial measures first put in place March 25 when it shut most businesses, closed schools and required residents to stay at home. At the time, the country outlined a four-stage plan to move toward some semblance of normalcy.

Those restrictions were walked back over the past five weeks, moving to Level 3 in April, and then Level 2 in mid-May. The move to Level 1 had been planned for June 22 but was brought forward when no new cases were reported. The restrictions lifted at midnight Monday.

The return to freedom of movement, however, is not quite complete. With the pandemic continuing to rage elsewhere, the country’s borders are still closed. Plans for a “travel bubble” with Australia are in the works but moving slowly.

Ardern also announced that QR codes would be appearing wherever people gather. She asked businesses to remind people to scan the codes into the government’s contact tracing app to make any future outbreak easier to track and isolate.

“This is a key new habit we’re asking all New Zealanders to adopt,” she said.

Ardern has been praised internationally for her approach to New Zealand’s outbreak, which was among the most stringent in the world.

“The virus will be in our world for some time to come,” she said Monday. “We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus for now, but elimination is not a point in time; it is a sustained effort.”

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health said in a statement that the last known coronavirus patient who was being treated in the hospital had been free of symptoms for 48 hours and was regarded as recovered.

“This is really good news for the person concerned, and it’s also something the rest of New Zealand can take heart from,” Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, said in a statement.

While Bloomfield called the moment a “significant mark in our journey,” he warned that the “ongoing vigilance” against the virus would be essential going forward.