New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, left lockdown overnight and moved into what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as “level 2.5” after just two new cases were announced on Sunday.
Ms Ardern on Sunday thanked residents in the city after living through two and a half weeks of lockdown, but she has warned the government would raise levels again “if we need to”.
“For Auckland, you are at a form of level two that I am going to call level 2.5,” Ms Ardern said.
“It is designed to keep us on track with our elimination strategy at level two in the scenario we now have, but it will only work if people follow the guidance, I understand it is easy to become complacent.”
The level three lockdown was lifted at 11.59pm local time after Auckland spent 18 days in lockdown.
Level two means social gatherings in Auckland are limited to 10, with a maximum of 50 people for COVID-safe funerals.
“I cannot express how important that is,” Ms Ardern said.
“If we want to stop the spread, we need to stop socialising for some time”.
Masks will also become compulsory on all forms of public transport for anyone above the age of 12 in any part of New Zealand from midnight while level two restrictions are in place.
Those failing to comply facing $300 fines on the spot.
“Basically, when you step out of your home … we are asking you to wear a mask.”
She would not rule out mandating the use of masks if people don’t wear them.
She said it was “highly unlikely” there was Covid outside Auckland and “we want to keep it that way”.
Last month, just two days after she launched her “COVID election” campaign, as the country celebrated 100 days with no community transmission, Ms Ardern had to break the sobering news to Kiwis that four new cases had emerged. The election was subsequently moved.
New Zealand has been the target of criticism by lockdown opponents overseas who have slammed its COVID-19 policies as too strict.
Ms Ardern has said New Zealand’s strategy had always been to “go hard and go early with a lockdown” and health authorities still saw it as “the best strategy for getting businesses open as soon as it is safe”.
“We are still dealing with a single source, and a single cluster.”
However, that source was yet to be identified, Ardern said.
There are 10 people with Covid-19 currently in hospital in New Zealand, two of whom are in ICU.
There are 136 active cases in New Zealand, 117 of which are in the community.
Ms Ardern followed that cue on Sunday, saying she will strengthen rules on face masks if Aucklanders refused to wear them.
“Here, we are relying on common sense and care to make this work when it comes to Aucklanders who are travelling,” Ms Ardern said.
“The last thing we want is for Aucklanders to spread the virus across the country.”
Health Minister Chris Hipkins said enforcement of the rule would be light touch — starting with engagement, encouragement and education.
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“We do not have a mask-wearing culture here in New Zealand,” Mr Hipkins said.
“This is going to take us all some time to get used to, and so we do ask for patience and co-operation as we all get used to taking this additional protective step.
“What we’re asking is for people to wear a face covering just as you would buckle up when you get into a car.”
Those who are exempt from wearing a face mask include children under 12, passengers in Ubers and taxis (but drivers must) and people with a disability or physical or mental health condition that makes covering their face unsuitable.
“We encourage everyone to get three or four washable masks each and are also investigating the potential distribution of reusable masks to those most in need.
“We know that some people won’t be able to wear masks for personal and medical reasons.”
It comes after two new cases were confirmed overnight, with Ms Ardern warning face masks may become mandatory in public across the nation if people fail to wear them on mass transport from Monday.
“A bus ride was the source of cases in this cluster and is one of a few settings where people are in close proximity for a sustained period of time with people they do not know,” Ms Ardern said.
“Some will ask why we haven’t mandated the use of masks beyond public transport.
“I will not rule out mandating the use in the future if we see people failing to use them as we are encouraging them to do right now.”