New Zealand could remove most of its remaining restrictions on people and businesses as soon as next week after virtually wiping out the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday the nation’s alert level could be reduced to 1 on June 10, meaning rules around physical distancing and mass gatherings are removed, though strict border controls will remain in place to prevent any new infections arriving from overseas. Cabinet will make its decision on June 8.
“Our strategy of going hard and early has paid off, in some cases beyond expectation,” Ardern told a news conference in Wellington. “In moving to level 1 so soon, we will be one of the first countries in the world to have experienced a Covid outbreak and then return to that level of normality so quickly.”
New Zealand is on the verge of eliminating the virus, with just one active case remaining and no new infections for the past 11 days. It got there by enforcing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, asking everyone to stay at home and allowing only essential services to operate. The seven-week lockdown ended on May 14 but residual restrictions remain in place to limit social interaction in shops, restaurants and public spaces.
Ardern said the government had planned to review those restrictions on June 22 but the absence of any new cases allowed the decision to be brought forward. The country has recorded 1,504 confirmed and probable infections, and just 22 deaths.
New Zealand was one of the few countries to pursue an explicit elimination strategy, rather than seeking to merely suppress transmission of the virus. If it successfully eradicates the pathogen, it will be the first to do so among countries that suffered a sizable outbreak. Only a handful of nations can make the claim, mostly small islands that had very few infections to begin with.
The government says its strict lockdown may inflict more economic pain initially, but should allow for a swifter recovery than many of its peers. While the closed border has decimated the tourism industry, New Zealand’s largest source of foreign exchange earnings, its status as a virus-free haven may stand it in good stead.
“We have the enviable situation of having choices,” Ardern said.