Updated Apr 9, 2020 - Health

New Zealand sets sights on coronavirus elimination after 2 weeks of lockdown

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives a coronavirus media update at the New Zealand Parliament. Photo: Mark Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images

New Zealand has flattened the curve of novel coronavirus cases after two weeks of lockdown and the next phase is to "squash it," professor Shaun Hendy, who heads a scientific body advising the government on COVID-19, told Axios.

Why it matters: Te Pūnaha Matatini, the Center of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland of which Hendy is director, released research Thursday showing there could've been hundreds more Covid-19 cases were it not for the lockdown — and there's a good chance the strict measures will help stamp out the virus.

Scientists' modeling showing the effectiveness of the lockdown. Photo: Te Pūnaha Matatini
  • The country imposed 15 days ago some of the toughest restrictions in the world in response to the pandemic, despite confirming only 102 cases and no deaths at the time.

How it works: Under alert level 4 restrictions, schools and non-essential businesses closed — including food delivery services. Only essential travel is permitted, and water activities like swimming are banned.

  • People must remain at home unless they're exercising outdoors — but they have to stick to their neighborhood and only interact with those in their household "bubble," keeping at least 6.5 feet from others.
  • A New Zealand Police spokesperson told Axios that 367 Covid-19 breaches had been recorded, including 45 prosecutions, as of Wednesday. People have been arrested for offenses like obstruction of a person assisting a medical officer, or being in breach of the Civil Defense Emergency Management Act.

What they're saying: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a briefing Wednesday she's "cautiously optimistic that we are starting to turn a corner," as she announced 50 new cases — the lowest daily coronavirus total in two weeks amid a surge in testing. On Thursday, health officials announced 29 new cases.

  • Hendy noted there had been a "flattening off" of cases in the past week. "We haven’t seen any further growth," he said. "We had that big rise in numbers, mostly driven by people coming back from overseas and we seem to have managed to have contained that growth."
"The fact that our numbers have stayed level, that’s due to our lockdown. ... We can be pretty optimistic we’ve flattened it and now it’s about can we bend it right down, can we squash it?"
— Hendy on the coronavirus curve

By the numbers: New Zealand has 992 confirmed infections, 247 probable cases and one death from 51,165 tests, according to the Ministry of Health. 317 people have recovered from the virus.

What's next: If COVID-19 is contained, New Zealand is expected to drop to alert level 3, which the country only experienced for two days before moving to full restrictions.

  • Ashley Bloomfield, director-general of health, told a briefing Monday this would involve "more widespread activity happening with more people back at work, but maintaining those strict things around physical separation, hand hygiene ... to prevent infection." 

The big picture: Ardern acted decisively early on. New Zealand had six confirmed cases when she announced on March 14 a ban on foreigners entering the country, saying: "We must go hard and we must go early." Businesses and workers have been compensated in a range of measures as part of a $12.1 billion support package.

  • The response has been bipartisan, with Opposition Leader Simon Bridges offering his support to the government. Following pressure from his National Party and epidemiologists, Ardern announced Thursday all returning New Zealanders must be quarantined in isolation for at least 14 days from their arrival date.
  • Ardern has been widely praised for her leadership during the coronavirus crisis, and for reassuring children at a news conference this week that the tooth fairy and Easter bunny are essential workers.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details on the modeling, fresh restrictions and more statistics.

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