WELLINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday (April 27) claimed New Zealand had scored a significant victory against the spread of the coronavirus, as the country began a phased exit from lockdown.
"There is no widespread, undetected community transmission in New Zealand," Ardern declared. "We have won that battle."
New Zealanders will be allowed to go fishing, surfing, hunting and hiking for the first time in more than a month after the alert level is shifted down a notch at midnight on Monday. But shops and restaurants will remain closed as several social restrictions remain in place.
Under the Level Three alert, some businesses, food outlets that provide takeaways and schools will reopen. Around 400,000 people will return to work.
But Ardern warned there was no certainty about when all transmission can be eliminated, allowing a return to normal life.
Everyone wants to "bring back the social contact that we all miss", she said, "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."
The easing of restrictions came as New Zealand, a nation of five million people, reported only one new case of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours, taking the total to 1,122 with 19 deaths.
The country had imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in response to the pandemic, with offices, schools, bars and restaurants, including take away and delivery services, closed on March 26.
Beaches, waterfronts and playgrounds were also shut, effectively restricting people to their homes and short walks around their neighbourhood.
Many businesses began preparations over the weekend to restart operations this week while maintaining ongoing social distancing rules.
Eateries announced contactless delivery plans. Retail stores showcased latest collections on their website for home delivery orders. Office towers posted social distancing rules on elevators and public areas.
The Parliament and courts across the country will also resume from Tuesday.
Still, Ardern stressed that public gatherings remain banned and asked people to remain in their "bubble", or with their close relatives.
Keen fishers will be permitted to cast a line from a wharf only as boating, yachting and other team sports or training remained barred. Hunting will be allowed on private land with special restrictions.
"We must make sure that we do not let the virus run away on us again and cause a new wave of cases and deaths," Ardern said. "To succeed we need to hunt down the last few cases of the virus."
Ben Kennings, the general manager for industry group Surfing New Zealand, said members were itching to return the sea in a country where an average 60,000 boarders enter the waters weekly.
"We have done well to stay out of the water, but tomorrow there's going to be a lot of people keen to go surfing,"Kennings said. "It's a hugely popular sport here. It is an individual sport that can be practiced with social distancing,"he added.
Trust in governments in Australia and New Zealand has risen since the start of the pandemic, opinion polls show, with the ideologically opposite leaders of both countries hailed for their management in suppressing the coronavirus.
The rate of increase in new cases has been below 1 per cent for two weeks now in both countries - much lower than in many other countries.
While Ardern has generally received public support, there has been growing criticism that similar results may have been achieved with less stringent lockdown measures, as in Australia.
Getting the US$200 billion (S$284 billion) trade and tourism dependent economy running again from a standing start will be a major challenge for Ardern as she faces national elections in September.