Jacinda Ardern says she ‘did a little dance’ when she heard there were no cases of coronavirus left in the country
New Zealand’s government will lift all Covid-19 restrictions except stringent border controls almost immediately, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has said, as the nation’s health officials declared that there were no longer any known, active cases of the coronavirus remaining.
“We are ready,” said Ardern at a news conference in Wellington, adding that New Zealanders had “united in unprecedented ways to crush the virus.”
Ardern has drawn global headlines and praise from the World Health Organization for her government’s approach to the virus, with a strict and cautious approach that appears to have paid off. On 25 March she locked down the country for four weeks – requiring that most New Zealanders remained at home most of the time – before gradually easing restrictions.
From midnight on Monday, Ardern said New Zealanders would live in a country “where life feels as normal as we can in the time of a global pandemic”. Physical distancing rules and limits on gathering sizes would be jettisoned, she said, allowing any parts of the economy still stalled to reopen.
New Zealanders responded with jubilation on social media.
“I know it’s a Monday and all, but I reckon I might pop that bottle of bubbly tonight and raise a glass to all the people of this fine country. Ka pai Aotearoa,” said James Shaw, the climate change minister, using a Māori phrase that means ‘good job, New Zealand.’
“Also, wash your hands…” he added.
Others looked forward to new freedoms with no restrictions in place from midnight on Monday: breakfast buffets, sitting next to each other on public transport, and being allowed to “touch my face”.
Some were more cautious. “Despite zero active cases, I am employing the precautionary principle and never going back to the gym, on account of corona,” one user tweeted.
New Zealand had reported just over 200 confirmed cases when the government shut down the country, and the total number of diagnosed instances of the virus never topped 1,500.
Twenty-two people died of Covid-19 in New Zealand, in contrast to the tens of thousands of deaths that modelling by scientists had predicted if restrictions were not imposed.
New Zealanders had “massively reduced their movements”, Ardern said; according to Google data, people had stayed at home more than residents in Australia, Britain and the United States had.
“Our collective results I think speak for ourselves,” Ardern said. “This was what the sacrifice of our team of five million was for – to keep one another safe and to keep one another well.” She has regularly referred to New Zealanders as a “team of five million” in an effort to unite people and encourage them to follow her government’s rules to curb the virus’ spread.
Worldwide, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases passed 7 million on Monday, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who rely on official government data. The current figure stands at 7,006,436. At least 402,699 people have died in the global pandemic so far.
The US is the worst-affected country, with 1,940,468 confirmed cases and more than a quarter of the world’s deaths, at 110,503. There are 15 countries with more than 100,000 confirmed cases. The true death and cases figures are likely to be higher, due to differing testing rates, definitions, time lags and suspected underreporting.
Strict border controls will remain in place for New Zealand, with Ardern warning that she had no timeline for removing them as they were, she said, the country’s best line of defence. Only New Zealanders and their immediate families can enter the country currently, and must spend 14 days in government-run quarantine.
She would not say that New Zealand had outright eliminated the virus, describing elimination as an ongoing effort.
“We almost certainly see cases here again,” she said. “That is not a sign that we have failed; it is a reality of this virus.”
New Zealand is now part of a small group of countries that have declared themselves free of Covid-19, and is understood to be the first to do so among nations that have had more than 1,000 confirmed cases.
The small European nation of Montenegro reported it no longer had any active cases of the virus on 25 May, Fiji followed on 5 June, and the Faroe Islands had said the same on 9 May.
Taiwan, Iceland, Cambodia, and Trinidad & Tobago each say they have fewer than 10 cases still active. A small handful of countries – including several tiny Pacific Island states – claim to have recorded no cases of Covid-19 at all.
For the past 10 days, a lone woman aged in her 50s, who lived in Auckland, was the last person in New Zealand known to be suffering from Covid-19. On Monday, health officials said, she had reported 48 hours symptom-free and was now considered recovered.
Ardern was asked what her reaction had been to the news. “I did a little dance,” she said.