New Zealanders hugged and kissed, shopped, and planned parties on Tuesday as the country took off all coronavirus restrictions for the first time in more than three months, while much of the rest of the world is still grappling with the pandemic.
The South Pacific nation of 5 million declared on Monday that it was free of the coronavirus, becoming one of the first countries in the world to return to pre-pandemic normality.
New Zealand has eliminated the transmission of the coronavirus domestically and will lift all containment measures except for border controls, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday, making it one of the first countries to do so.
“Public and private events, the retail and hospitality industries and all public transport could resume without social distancing norms still in place across much of the world. While the job is not done, there is no denying this is a milestone … Thank you, New Zealand,” Ardern told reporters.
This meant no more limits on people in cafes, malls, stadiums, night clubs, or public and private gatherings. Life, for the most part, is back to normal.
New Zealanders are emerging from the pandemic while big economies such as Brazil, Britain, India, and the United States continue to struggle with the virus. Its largely due to months of restrictions, including about seven weeks of a strict lockdown in which most businesses were shut and everyone except essential workers had to stay home.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that thanks to the hard work of our team of 5 million, we will move into Alert Level 1 from midnight tonight.
“Today, 75 days later, we are ready,” Ardern told a news conference, announcing the government would drop social distancing restrictions from midnight on Monday and move to a level 1 national alert from Level 2.
Border controls would remain and everyone entering the country would be tested, she said.
Today, New Zealand officially has zero active COVID-19 cases. New Zealand has reported 1,154 infections and 22 deaths from the disease.
“We are confident we have eliminated the transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort.”
New Zealanders cheered the lifting of curbs and the topic #COVIDFreeNZ quickly trended on Twitter. Rugby fans in particular were looking forward to attending stadiums to watch the opening games of the domestic competition this weekend.
Ardern said she did a “little dance” when she was told there were no more active Covid-19 cases in New Zealand, surprising her two-year-old daughter, Neve.
“She was caught a little by surprise and she joined it having absolutely no idea why I was dancing around the lounge. She enjoyed it nevertheless,” Ardern said.
New Zealand vowed to eliminate, not just contain, the virus. This means stopping transmission for an extended period after the last known case is cleared while being ready to quickly detect and isolate any new cases including from abroad.
Ardern, 39, has won global praise for her leadership during the pandemic and her popularity has seen stratospheric growth over the last few months. She is well placed to win a second term in office in September elections, according to recent opinion polls.
Even so, the government will need to show it is up to the task of reviving the economy, which is expected to sink into recession.
Ardern did not commit to a timeline for a proposed ‘travel bubble’ to open with Australia, although the tourism industries in both countries have been pushing for it. “We will need to move cautiously here. No one wants to jeopardize the gains New Zealand has made,” she said
Jacinda Ardern’s health chief, Ashley Bloomfield, who spearheaded the strict lockdown, said it was time to live a little. “It’s about buying local, getting out and enjoying everything this country has to offer,” he told reporters in Wellington.
“There is still a pandemic raging beyond our shores and we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep the gains we have made,” he added.
New Zealand will also be one of the first countries to allow people to watch professional sports at stadiums with no limits on crowd numbers. Thousands are expected to pack into stadiums for the opening weekend of the domestic rugby union competition.