New Zealand has begun a phased exit from its coronavirus lockdown – on of the most stringent imposed anywhere in the world – with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern claiming the country scored a significant victory against the disease.
After nearly five weeks at the maximum Level Four restrictions – with only essential services operating – the country moved to Level Three late on Monday night.
“There is no widespread, undetected community transmission in New Zealand,” Ardern declared. “We have won that battle.”
About 400,000 people returned to work on Tuesday morning, as the move to Level Three, allowed some businesses to reopen, schools to resume classes for some children and delivery and takeaway food outlets to open their doors.
However, Ardern warned there was no certainty about when all transmission would be eliminated, allowing a return to normal life. Strict social distancing remains in force.
Everyone wants to “bring back the social contact that we all miss, but to do it confidently we need to move slowly and we need to move cautiously”.
“I will not risk the gains we’ve made in the health of New Zealanders. So if we need to remain at Level Three, we will.”
New Zealand is home to about five million people and reported only one new case of COVID-19 in the 24 hours ahead of the relaxation, taking the total to 1,122 cases and 19 deaths. Three new cases were reported on Tuesday morning.
The loosening of the restrictions triggered an early morning rush for burgers, fries and coffee, with long queues of cars appearing outside outlets of fastfood chain McDonald’s hours before they were due to open, according to the New Zealand Herald.
Kiwis started lining up from as early as midnight at McDonald’s restaurants around the country – five to six hours before they actually opened.
New Zealand imposed the lockdown in late March closing its borders, shutting down all non-essential businesses and services, and telling people to stay at home – unless for a short walk around the neighbourhood or to visit the supermarket for supplies.
Under Level Three, people are still being urged to stay at home when they are not at work, school or getting food and other essentials. Strict social distancing remains in force, and police will be on the look out for large groups of people.
Ardern is expected to speak to the media later on Tuesday to assess the transition from Level 4 to Level 3, and provide an outline of the government’s plans going forward.