New Zealand wakes up to eerie silence as coronavirus lockdown begins

"Breaking the rules could kill someone close to you," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned people in a news conference on March 25. PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) - New Zealand started a one-month compulsory lockdown on Thursday (March 26) to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with warnings from authorities to stay at home or face huge fines and even jail time.

Motorways, train stations and streets in downtown Auckland and Wellington were eerily silent on Thursday morning as people stayed indoors, while office towers and shopping arcades were shuttered.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said most things were going according to plan.

"The streets are essentially empty ... that's a remarkable feat and I want to thank New Zealanders for that," Ms Ardern said at a news conference.

The government has allowed people in essential services to continue going to work. But schools, offices, restaurants, bars, places of worship and even playgrounds were shut as part of the unprecedented lockdown.

Ms Ardern declared a national state of emergency on Wednesday as the number of cases of Covid-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus, surged by 50 cases to take the national tally to 205.

"Breaking the rules could kill someone close to you," Ms Ardern warned people in a news conference on Wednesday.

The number of cases rose by 79 on Thursday, taking the tally to 283.

New Zealand Police Chief Mike Bush said that there were still some people flouting the rules and they could face serious consequences.

"There were people driving around, flouting these rules, claiming that they had no knowledge about this. For those people, if they are seen again ... there will be a consequence of those actions," Mr Bush said in an interview to state broadcaster TVNZ.

This is only the second time in New Zealand's history that a national emergency has been declared, with the first one in February 2011, after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the South Island city of Christchurch, killing almost 200.

But the lockdown and disruption have raised alarm over the health of the economy.

The finance minister said the impact of the coronavirus on jobs would be "significantly worse" than the global financial crisis.

The government has frozen rent and mortgages and announced a NZ$12.1 billion (S$10.23 billion) fiscal stimulus package to support the economy.

New Zealand, with about 5 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 large gatherings.

Countries that have locked down their populations to prevent the spread of coronavirus need to put a premium on finding new cases and doing everything they can "to suppress and control"the virus, the World Health Organisation said on Wednesday.

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