HAVELOCK NORTH, New Zealand — New Zealand reported no new cases of coronavirus Monday, with the country’s top health official saying this was “cause for celebration” while imploring Kiwis not to ease up on social distancing.
This was the first time since March 16 — 10 days before the country went into a strict, month-long “level 4″ lockdown — that New Zealand reported zero new infections had been found. The country is now under a slightly less restrictive stay-at-home order, with businesses allowed to reopen as long as they can operate without coming into contact with customers.
“Clearly these are encouraging figures today, but it is one moment in time,” Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, said at a briefing Monday. There were six cases reported Saturday, and two on Sunday.
“We cannot afford to squander all the hard work and effort of the past weeks,” Bloomfield said. “We did see at the weekend that it can be easy to slacken off, and we need to maintain discipline and keep pushing on, and sustain the advantage that we have fought so hard for.”
New Zealand has been enjoying an extended summer, with the warm sunny weather leading many people to push the boundaries of the “level 3″ rules, which stipulate people can be outside only for exercise. Police cleared people having picnics and sunbathing at some beaches over the weekend.
Most New Zealanders are now hoping that the cabinet will decide at its scheduled meeting next Monday to move to level 2, when life could return to some semblance of normal.
But Bloomfield noted that New Zealand had been enjoying the slight freedoms of level 3 for only one week, and it remained to be seen whether this had led to increased cases of coronavirus in the community.
“The real test is later this week, when we factor in the incubation period for the virus and the time it takes for people to display symptoms, which is generally five to six days after exposure,” he said. “That’s when we will have an indication if there are any new cases coming through that might be emerging in the community as a result of our shift from level four to three.”
Unlike many Western countries that have been trying to “contain” the virus and slow the flow of sick people into hospitals, New Zealand has pursued an “elimination” strategy where it is trying to stamp out the virus to a tiny number of cases that could quickly be traced and isolated.
That, however, will require the country to keep its borders closed for an extended period, a move that would exact a heavy economic cost in a country where tourism is a major industry.
The total number of confirmed and probable cases stands at 1,487, but some 80 percent have recovered. Seven people are hospitalized, although none are in intensive care. There have been 20 deaths, all over the age of 60.