New Zealand will remain at its current level of Covid-19 restrictions for another week, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said on Monday as she urged the public to stay the course on the county’s “cautious” approach to quashing the virus.
“New Zealand has followed a plan that has worked,” she said, referring to her government’s strict, early lockdown of the country in March as New Zealand’s coronavirus cases started to rise. “This has both saved lives, but also meant our economy has been able to be more open in a more sustained way than nearly any other country in the world.”
Restrictions on Auckland – which include a 10-person limit on social gatherings – would remain in place for a further week, until 21 September, Ardern said on Monday. She had earlier met with her cabinet about the Covid-19 protocols.
Milder rules for the rest of the country – where no community transmission has been recorded – will also remain in place until 21 September, when they will be jettisoned if case numbers remain contained, Ardern said. At present, social gatherings outside Auckland are limited to 100 people.
Throughout the country, she added, physical distancing would no longer be required on planes or public transport, effective immediately; previously, all travellers had been required to leave empty seats between them. Masks are legally mandated for all passengers.
Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, has had its restrictions eased slowly after a resurgence of community transmission of the virus there in August. It followed a period in June when there were no reported cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, and the country largely returned to normal, apart from strict border rules.
The fresh outbreak in Auckland – the source of which remains unknown but which has led to 57 cases – plunged the city back into a second, strict lockdown. A cluster of cases in the city was still creating fresh instances of the virus recorded daily, Ardern said.
Ardern defended the continued protocols for the country in Monday’s remarks. “You only need to look off our shores to see the alternative,” she said. “As we see major second waves globally, ours has been relatively small and contained.”
The rules New Zealanders had followed “have kept us safe, saved lives, and helped us get the economy moving quicker than most other countries around the world,” Ardern added.
Her political detractors have at times criticised the prime minister for being too cautious at the expense of the economy.
“The global economic outlook is weak, but continuing our elimination strategy based on strong and well-targeted public health measures allows economic activity in New Zealand to resume … sooner than many other countries around the world,” Ardern said.
The prime minister, who faces an election on 17 October, was widely praised overseas – and saw record approval ratings in New Zealand – for her strategy of a strict, early lockdown in March and April that appeared to have vanquished the virus for a time.
But sticking to the “patient” path of easing restrictions slowly required courage on Ardern’s part, analysts said.
“It takes a lot of determination to stand your ground, and particularly in a politically charged environment with an election coming up soon,” Dougal Sutherland, from Victoria University Wellington’s school of psychology, told the Guardian.
Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago, said: “You have to be very patient at this stage when you’re gradually reducing the controls on the virus.
“I think most people in New Zealand understand the huge benefits of emerging into a virus-free country, and we had that experience a few months ago.”
New Zealand has recorded a total of 1,447 Covid-19 cases, with 23 deaths. Three people are in hospital, with two of them in intensive care.
There are 96 people with the coronavirus at present, with 39 of them imported cases. All of those people are quarantined in government-run managed isolation facilities.
Ardern’s review of the restrictions next week could send Auckland to a lower alert level, expanding numbers allowed at social gatherings to 100. And the rest of the country could once again experience a complete lifting of coronavirus protocols.
Sutherland, the psychologist, said that although New Zealand’s restrictions were not particularly severe, the low-level and ongoing uncertainty could still be exhausting.
“It’s arguably a bit more tiring now than it was during lockdown,” when the rules were clear, he said. “It feels like you have to be on alert all the time … ‘Are those people too close? Do we have to wear a mask here? Do I need to sign in?’”
“It takes energy to be switched on,” he added.
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