WELLINGTON (REUTERS) - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared a state of national emergency on Wednesday (March 25) as the country prepared to go into a complete lockdown at midnight to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
New Zealand's cases of the coronavirus surged to 205 cases as the government imposed self-isolation for everyone, with all non-essential services, schools and offices to be shut for a month from 1100 GMT (7pm Singapore time).
"From midnight tonight, we bunker down for four weeks to try and stop the virus in its tracks, to break the chain," Ms Ardern told Parliament.
"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."
Ms Ardern told Parliament the lockdown was triggered by early evidence of community transmission of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A record 50 new cases were confirmed on Wednesday.
"If you have any questions about what you can or can't do, apply a simple principle: Act like you have Covid-19," Ms Ardern said.
"Every move you then make is a risk to someone else. That is how we must all collectively think. That's why the joy of physically visiting other family, children, grandchildren, friends, neighbours is on hold. Because we're all now putting each other first. And that is what we as a nation do so well."
All non-essential services, bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms, cinemas, pools, museums, libraries, playgrounds and any other place where the public congregate will be closed.
Supermarkets, doctors, pharmacies, service stations and access to essential banking services will all be available.
Major cities like Auckland and Wellington wore a deserted look on Wednesday as businesses shut down, cafes closed and all offices locked their doors.
The disruptions are expected to have a deep impact on businesses and lead to thousands of job losses. Some firms have already announced job cuts.
The government has announced billions of dollars in support for small businesses, workers and families, and promised more in the coming days.
On Wednesday, it announced a six-month freeze on residential rent increases and increased protection from having tenancies terminated.
Ms Ardern warned the restrictions will be strictly enforced.
But she said "it was OK to go for a walk with your children, a run near your house, or drive to get groceries during the lockdown".
"But everyone had to keep 2m distance, and people may be stopped and questioned by the police," she added.
This is only the second time in New Zealand's history that a national emergency has been declared, with the first one on Feb 23, 2011, after a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the South Island city of Christchurch, killing almost 200.
New Zealand, with about five million people, has fewer infections than many other countries, but Ms Ardern's government wants to move fast to halt the spread.
It was one of the first to force all arriving travellers into self-isolation and to ban indoor and outdoor gatherings.
Cases in neighbouring Australia have soared past 2,250 and officials have warned infections could overwhelm medical services.
India's 1.3 billion population also went into complete lockdown for 21 days to protect the world's second-most populous country from coronavirus.