WELLINGTON • New Zealand has declared a state of national emergency, giving the government additional powers to enforce a nationwide lockdown.
From midnight yesterday, everyone except those working in essential services will be required to stay at home.
People can go outside with household members, but must observe a 2m distance from anyone else as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
"Unlike so many other gravely inundated countries, we have a window of opportunity to stay home, break the chain of transmission and save lives," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Parliament.
"From midnight tonight, we bunker down for four weeks to try to stop the virus in its tracks, to break the chain," she said.
"Make no mistake, this will get worse before it gets better. We will have a lag and cases will increase for the next week or so. Then we'll begin to know how successful we have been."
New Zealand is attempting to eliminate the virus before it takes hold, having seen the devastation caused in countries such as Italy, where the authorities acted too late.
The South Pacific nation has 205 confirmed and probable cases, the vast majority of which can be traced to international travel, but the first signs of community transmission have been detected.
The nationwide lockdown, initially in force for four weeks, will see all schools and non-essential businesses close. Supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential services will remain open, though many are required to limit customers to one at a time.
The unprecedented measures have prompted panic buying. One supermarket chain said it sold enough food in a single day to feed 10 million people - twice the population of New Zealand.
There has also been anger as domestic holidaymakers find themselves stranded, unable to book passage on ferries or flights.
That prompted the government to delay the start of the lockdown for those still trying to get home until midnight tomorrow.
It has advised the tens of thousands of New Zealanders still on holiday abroad to stay where they are.
The government has also been forced to decide which businesses need to remain open to reduce the economic disruption.
The hit to the economy will still be severe, with economists predicting thousands of job losses even after the government announced massive spending packages to keep companies afloat.
"We're hoping that people have heard the messages and understand how horrendous this could get," said Ms Sarah Stuart-Black, director of Civil Defence Emergency Management.
"We don't want thousands of people to die. There will be no tolerance for people who do not comply with the requirement to self-isolate to keep New Zealand safe."