Source: New Zealand Government
I want to start today by acknowledging the sacrifices New Zealanders have made over the six and a half weeks we have been in Alert Levels 4 and 3 in order to beat COVID-19.
Be it those who lost loved ones and were unable to say goodbye and mourn properly.
Be it the children who wrote to me about missing birthdays, and there were many of them, or the many who cancelled weddings or didn’t mark anniversaries.
Be it the jobs that have been lost and the businesses that owners spent years building up only to watch it and their workforce suffer terribly.
But for all of that, Kiwis from all walks of life were resolute and determined.
Determined that this was a war we could eventually win, but only if we acted together. So we formed a team, and as a team we created a wall of protection for one another.
Over the weekend I read a letter from a mother who spoke about what that team effort has meant to her.
Her young son has compromised immunity and as a result is on constant medication. When COVID arrived in the form of a global pandemic she was terrified. But she was writing to me out of sheer relief. There may be no cure, no vaccine for COVID yet, but there was each and every one of you. Every single Kiwi who made the decision to stay home. To make sacrifices. You did that for her boy.
You did it for someone’s mother. Someone’s father. Someone’s child. You created a wall that meant the virus couldn’t reach those that it could easily take. And for that, there are many people who are grateful to you – their team of 5 million.
Case numbers remain low, and in the last week we have had two days in a row of no cases.
By the end of Level 4 our R value, the number of people each case goes on to infect was 0.4. Under Level 3 it has remained low. Experts tell us that if the R value stays below 1 we will eventually achieve our goal of elimination.
As of today we have only 90 New Zealanders recorded as having the virus of whom only 2 are in hospital.
None of that has been through luck, but hard work. While we have been battling the virus, we have also built up our health system specifically to act as a defence.
We can now undertake up to 12,000 tests a day. 3.5 per cent of the entire population has been tested and our testing rates are amongst the highest in the world per-capita, ahead of countries like Australia, the UK, Germany, Singapore and South Korea.
A lot of work has gone into building up our contact tracing capability. Dr Ayesha Verrall’s report has been instrumental in this regard and the majority of the recommendations have been implemented.
We can now contact trace 185 cases a day and have capacity to contact 10,000 people a day through a new national call centre, established since the beginning of the outbreak.
Identifying new cases of the virus quickly through testing and rapid contact tracing can be 90 per cent as effective as a vaccine in stopping the spread of the virus. But I cannot emphasise enough that speed is of the essence. The clock starts as soon as someone feels sick. If you have COVID, we need every minute to find the people you have been in contact with and isolate them before they are in contact with someone else.
In short, if you have a sniffle, or a sore throat, or a cough – get advice and get a test. Quickly. Please don’t be a stoic Kiwi.
If you do your bit, we all must keep doing ours. That means continuing our strong border controls, hand hygiene and physical distancing which have, and will continue, to be our primary wall of defence against COVID.
They’re tools that have worked.
But we all know there is more to do. We may have won a few battles, but we have not won the war.
We are still recording cases most days.
New information about the virus indicates it could be spread prior to a person becoming symptomatic, meaning it can be passed on by seemingly healthy people.
And the scientists who have advised us so well to date, say there is still a chance of silent spread in the future and therefore cases taking off again.
So, today I am announcing that Cabinet agrees we are ready to move into Level 2, to open up the economy, but to do it as safely as possible.
Let me set out how we will do that.
On Thursday this week retail, malls, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and other public spaces including playgrounds and gyms, can reopen. All will be required to have physical distancing and strict hygiene measures in place.
You can begin to move around New Zealand, but space yourself out especially if you’re using public transport.
And of course health services will restart.
On Monday 18 May, all children and young people will be able to return to school and early learning. This staging is to give parents, teachers and education facilities time to plan.
And finally, on Thursday 21 May, bars will be able to open with all the requirements set out last week, including that seating must be provided, there must be space between tables, and there mustn’t be multiple waiters and waitresses serving a single table.
We have left bars till last because they do pose the most risk, as we can see from South Korea that recently opened up there bars, only to close them again after one person created an outbreak of 40 people and 1500 tests.
While we have put in place measures and expectations to make all hospitality as safe as possible, these few extra days really do give us a chance to lock in the data from level three and feel more secure that we’re ready for this move.
Overall though, the upshot is that in 10 days’ time we will have reopened most businesses in New Zealand, and sooner than many other countries around the world. But that fits with our plan – go hard, go early – so we can get our economy moving again sooner, and so we get the economic benefit of getting our health response right.
And so far, we have.
But there does have to be a new normal. And that normal means that we will be breaking out of our bubbles, we will be around more people. But we can do that, and get more activity going, if we balance that with keeping our distance, and keeping our social gatherings small for now.
Our strength so far has been our willingness to learn about this virus and change the way we behave to beat it.
And we have learnt a lot, especially from our clusters. If you’ve followed their origin, you’ll know that are a slice of Kiwi life. They have started at wedding receptions, stag dos, a conference in Queenstown that included drinks and socialising, a bar in Matamata. There is a theme – when we come together to socialise in large numbers with one another, there is risk. The best insurance policy we have for that risk, is to reduce the size of our socialising for now. And that is what the Director General of Health has recommended we do, for now.
Parties, big social events or anything designed to be for mixing and mingling won’t be allowed to happen for groups larger than 10 people.
Gatherings at home, need to be capped at 10. Church and religious events, weddings, funerals, stag dos – all must be limited to 10 for now.
And if you’re wanting to head to a restaurant, or a bar, they won’t be able to take group bookings larger than 10. This, alongside social distancing, is our insurance policy.
And why 10? Simple. If something goes wrong with a group of 10, that’s much easier to contain, much easier to contact trace, and much less likely that if something goes wrong that the whole country will have to experience more restrictions.
That doesn’t mean you won’t see larger gatherings than this. People will be at the movies – but they’ll be spaced out. They’ll be watching sports, but spaced out. People might go to show, but they’ll be spaced out. You’ll see bars and restaurants open – but they’ll be required to have people seated, and spaced out.
We have done what we can to prioritise opening up businesses, but just alter the way we work within them for the next wee while. This strikes the balance between getting the economy moving, but also making sure we have got the next stage right.
I know that many New Zealanders are looking forward to catching up with friends and family, and from this Thursday you can.
But for now it needs to be small. This is a transition out of bubbles, where you can see people you haven’t seen in a while; you just can’t do it all at once.
I should also add that if you have a family that is larger than 10, you don’t need to throw anyone out of the house. We are being pragmatic. But we don’t want you having a big gathering yet.
This is also one of the reasons we decided to allow travel again as we signalled last week. It wasn’t so much the movement around the country – it was what people did when they got there that mattered. So go and see your mum – just don’t turn it into a massive family reunion while you’re at it. Instead, maybe visit a local tourism site or support a local business.
We will look at these remaining restrictions again in two weeks’ time and if our numbers continue to look good the number of people you can socialise with, and hold events with, will grow.
Last Thursday when announcing what Level 2 looks like I said the key rule is to play it safe. That we all need to take individual responsibility for our actions and continue to behave like the virus is still amongst us, especially when in public and among people we don’t know.
At level 4 and 3 we had success because staying home meant we broke the chain of transmission. We simply weren’t in contact with others to spread the virus.
At Level 2 we are now out and about again, just about all parts of the economy are opening up again. What we have balanced in these decisions, is how we can do that, get restaurants opens, malls open, shops open, but also how we can keep them open.
That’s why we are asking you all to be incredibly careful as we get back to a new safer normal. None of us can assume COVID isn’t with us.
So with that in mind, a reminder of the golden rules of Level 2.
• Keep your distance from other people when you are out in public, including on transport.
• If you’re sick, stay home. Don’t go to work or school. Don’t socialise. This should be a really low bar.
• If you have symptoms of cold or flu call your doctor or Healthline immediately and get tested.
• Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Do it properly.
• Don’t get together socially or mix and mingle with more than 10 people at once.
• And keep a track of where you’ve been and who you’ve seen.
Your efforts New Zealand have got us to this place ahead of most of the world and without the carnage COVID inflicted in many other places.
But there are risks ahead, so please be vigilant at level 2. Irresponsible behaviour will take us backwards.
Getting to this position early has saved jobs and businesses but there is a long road ahead to full recovery, and things will continue to be very, very tough before they get better. We are looking to provide more support for the businesses most affected, and to do that soon.
This week the Government will release our Budget, our plan to respond to the economic toll the virus has caused.
It will be one of many steps we take in our efforts to rebuild together.
In fact that is what the Budget is called, “Rebuilding together”. At its heart it is the simple idea that our team of 5 million has united to beat the virus, now together we can also unite to rebuild our economy.
And that there is an opportunity to build back even better addressing issues like inequality, our run-down infrastructure and challenges to our environment.
The Finance Minister will have much, much more to say on that on Thursday.
For now we are in Level 3 for just two more days.
From Thursday when you wake up, play it safe.
Remember that wall of defence we built together as a team, now rests with every one of us. So when you’re out and about acknowledge your fellow team mates. Enjoy being out more, and seeing others – but keep it small, keep your distance, and be kind.