Alert Level 2 restrictions announced

For six weeks now, our lives have been quite different. We have gone from a lockdown, into Level 3 and the reopening of parts of our economy, as our team of 5 million has stuck to our strategy of going hard and going early to win the battle against COVID-19.

We can be proud of what we achieved. 

Low numbers of new cases, and 2 days where we were without any. Increases in testing, including actively testing those who might be at risk of COVID-19 as we hunt to find any burning embers of the virus. 

Amongst the health response, we have seen the ingenuity of Kiwis who have understood what was needed to operate at Level 3 safely, and have made it work. Even more pleasing, is how well these owners and operators have been supported, with Kiwis being mindful of the people and livelihoods that sit behind a meal, a parcel, a takeaway lunch. Those businesses reopened their doors, and we have begun reopening our economy. 

Now we find ourselves in a unique position again. 

On Monday Cabinet will consider the next stage of our response. We will do that with the best evidence and advice we can, with all of the data we have from almost one more full cycle of the virus.

We need every number from every single day to get the full set of data and we need of course the view of the Director General of Health.

We will make a balanced decision. One that recognises the impact of restrictions, and the huge impact of restrictions on people’s livelihoods but doesn’t risk all of the gains that we have made today. 

After-all, no one wants a second wave. No one. 

As restrictions have been relaxed in other countries around the world, the virus has had the opportunity to bounce back. And in some places it has. Ultimately we need to stay in control

So, the key for us has always been to understand where we are at, at any given time in our battle with COVID, and then make sure we are at the right alert level to put us in the best position to continue beating it. 

Every alert level therefore has its own battle. And even when you win one, it doesn’t mean that the war is over. 

So a quick reminder again of the framework we have been using to help us on this journey. 

As the Alert Level system makes clear, different levels allow different amounts of contact with one another, depending on how bad the spread of COVID-19 is. At Alert Level 4 the aim is to ‘eliminate’ contact with each other, and that is what a full lockdown achieves. 

At Level 3 – Restrict – there is still a high risk the virus can get out of control and bounce back, so the goal remains to restrict contact with one another as much as possible. 

At Level 2 – The aim is still to reduce close contact with strangers. It acknowledges that the virus is probably still with us, so we do need to behave differently to prevent it taking off again. It is very unlikely that we have hunted down every single case of COVID-19. If stray cases start new chains of transmission we might not find them for a month. So we all have to stay on guard.

Level 2 has been designed to get as many people back to work as possible and the economy back up and running but in the safest way possible.

In a nutshell, the principle behind Level 2, is play it safe. 

We will only move there if things are under control, but it won’t mean the fight is over. If we adopt a safer way of operating as part of our new normal, we can keep it in check and remain on our path of elimination. 

So, now for the principles of playing it safe. 

First, we have our constants. 

Public health measures remain unchanged. If you are even slightly sick, stay home. I know this is against New Zealander’s stoic intuition, but I cannot reiterate this enough, if you are sick, please stay at home. If you have symptoms, even if it’s just a runny nose, a sore throat, get a test.

And now more than ever, wash your hands, often and properly, all of the time. 

Wash all high-touch surfaces regularly, like your keys and door handles. And don’t pass other people your phone.

The border remains unchanged. We will continue to keep our borders closed except to Kiwis. We will continue to isolate Kiwis who come in from overseas in managed hotels away from others. 

And our elimination strategy remains in place. Test. Contact trace. Isolate. 

This is our COVID business as usual. 

There are a few other things we want you to keep the same. And that includes your distance. 

You’ll hear people talk a lot about how far you should stay apart from others. Let me give you the rationale behind that. If you are sick, then you will sometimes have symptoms that will make you spread your illness – things like coughing. If that’s the case, the safest place for you is at home. But, if someone doesn’t follow those rules, or doesn’t know they are sick, and leaves the house, the safest distance between you and that sick person is 2 metres. So that’s why we use that guideline. 

Now, as we have moved through the alert levels, you will be coming into contact with more people, in more places. It’s not always easy to keep that much distance between you. So at Alert Level 2, playing it safe means 2 metres from strangers, but in your workplace, or places where you’re around people you know or who we can contact trace later, we can live with less. Because we can find you and we can find them.

Let’s talk then about workplaces at Level 2. 

Businesses can restart for staff and for customers. 

Services can be provided on customers’ premises, for example in people’s homes. And people who haven’t been into their office spaces can return, but with good hygiene practices in place.

But one thing to remember. COVID is still with us. The fewer people we may have to contact trace in a workplace the better. So while you can go back, it is still worth the conversation with your boss whether you have to be there in person. After-all, many businesses may well have experienced the productivity gains of staggered start times, less congestion, and working from home. There’s no reason we should lose what we have learnt.

Each business can work out its own situation. There is flexibility there. What is non-negotiable though is key basic hygiene practices.

That brings me to those places of work where working from home was never an option. Domestic cleaners, hairdressers, retail stores, cafes, restaurants, hospitality – at Level 2, when we get there, these operations can reopen. 

But they all must play it safe, and means doing things differently. 

For retail, that means physical distancing in store for both staff and customers. It means good hygiene practices and regular cleaning of surfaces and those things people touch often.

Larger retailers and malls will follow the lead of our supermarkets with measures like limiting the number of people in store to enable enough space for physical distancing.

For hairdressers and beauticians, it means wearing appropriate PPE because of the close proximity you have with your customers throughout the day – because we want to protect you, and your clients.  This in an area we where have given specific advice, because it is virtually impossible to do this job without being in close proximity to your clients and having a large number of clients in any single day so this system is to mitigate this risk.

And for hospitality, be it a cafe, a restaurant, or a bar, playing it safe means using all of the evidence and advice we have to make rules that work. 

This means that only those businesses that can apply the three ‘s’ will be able to operate. They are:

1) People must be seated. That means you can only have as many people in your venue as you can safely seat, and no one, regardless of venue size, can have more than 100. The reason for this is simple – COVID loves congregations. Crowds of strangers with no physical distancing, and no ability to tell who you were standing near is very very difficult. It is much easier to separate people, keep them physically distanced, and trace them, if we make sure people are seated. This also helps to prevent the spread. Congested bars have already produced a massive cluster in New Zealand and we must avoid another. 

2) People must be separated – so there must be social distance in a venue between people and tables. I acknowledge that this may mean for some it is not economical to open but that is up to each venue. 

3) Each table must have a single server. At every venue there must be table service, not people going up to counters, as this minimises contact and helps us to trace if we need to.
 

So the three s’s again are seated, separated, and single-server. 

Finally, as you can imagine, contact tracing will also be key here. We are working on a nationwide technological fix to make it easier for businesses to record who comes into their premises. This is likely to include QR codes but in the meantime manual or basic digital recording will be used, which was being done by venues before we moved up alert levels. 

 Of course it matters what happens outside the hospitality venue too – as we have seen in recent weeks. 

 Operators will have a responsibility to manage customer contact outside their venue. If there are lines for instance – people must be separated. 

 Those who do not comply with these guidelines will be shut down and lose their ability to operate.  

As you can see, there are significant risks in hospitality, and so there are significant rules to manage those risks. These are all principles we have worked through with the Hospitality Association, including the three S’s and we both believe they can be made to work.

That brings me to the issue of gatherings. Our journey in understanding this virus has also led us to reaffirm that at Level 2, indoor gatherings are limited to a maximum of 100. I do just want to just acknowledge – that is a maximum, of course many venues for their fire regulations will not be able to have that many and many will not be able to sit that many, and some can’t due to physical venue size but we have also learned enough, to also limit outdoor gatherings to 100 people also. 

Previously you’ll recall it was 500 for outdoors but I think everyone can see that big events lead to risk, and that risk can mean big clusters. I know this will affect many, but we have to keep working on getting things right so that we can get to a place where larger events are possible again. In the meantime, we are thinking about the extra support required for sectors that are impacted by this.

For managed events like weddings, music events, religious services, funerals – these can be held at Level 2 when we get there but with all the same public health guidance, and with the 100-person limit. 

Public venues such as museums and markets can also open again, but again, the same rules of keeping your distance, and good hygiene apply. 

Success or failure could depend on something as simple as how often you clean the handrails.

This brings me to issue of bubbles.

First you no longer need to stick to your bubble.  You can begin seeing family and friends again. But, we do want you to hang onto the same principles we are using general in hospitality. Space, hygiene, and contact tracing.

If we have large scale events held in people’s homes, then all of that becomes harder. That is why at alert level two, we are saying that you can have friends and family over to your home, but keep numbers small so that you can practice safe distancing. This is not the time for a large party or function at your home. We will providing more specific guidance on this in the coming days.

 Personal movement

And finally, I come to the issue of moving around New Zealand. At the time of creating the alert level framework, our case numbers were limited. We now know a lot about risk. We know for instance, that so long as you play it safe when you travel, we can minimise the risks. It’s what you do when you get there that is the problem. A trip from Wellington to Napier to see your mum is fine. A trip from Wellington to Napier to go to a big conference with an open bar, is not fine. 

That’s why at Level 2, we will be allowing people to move around the country again, but to do it safely. Keep your distance on public transport, and at airports. Manage your social distancing. Remember the same practices apply wherever you go in the country. And those are practices that those involved in large scale transport are already putting in place.

I know this change will mean a lot to the likes of our tourism industry, and I know a lot of people are keen to support you. In fact I got an email just last night from a wonderful Kiwi named Judith who told me that “when we are on the other side of this, I plan to get a haircut then to take a trip somewhere in New Zealand.”

A lot of Kiwis share this sentiment but we need to support our tourism industry safely to avoid going back to square one.

That brings me to recreation and sport. 

It’s quite different at Level 2.

At Level 2, playgrounds, gyms, pools and public courts are permitted to reopen, subject to meeting the required public health measures.  

All water activities, including sailing and motorised boating can resume.

Some community sports will be able to return to play more quickly than others while the necessary health requirements are worked through, so we ask that you give your club a chance to get up and running again.

We all want to get back to sport, but we want to take enough time to do it safely.

Professional sport will be able to resume domestically under Level 2 with the necessary public health measures in place. Super Rugby and the Netball Premiership League have already confirmed their intention to resume a domestic competition at Alert Level 2 which I know will be cause for great excitement for many.

The rules around mass gatherings will still apply, so there won’t be any stadium crowds for now. But sport will be played. Again there is more detail to come on this area and it will be made publicly available.

And last but not least, education.

Early learning services, schools and tertiary education facilities can open at Level 2.

I do want to emphasise that, with so few cases in New Zealand, schools and early learning services are safe environments for children, young people and staff. Additional public health control measures are in place to prevent the spread of disease and to support contact tracing. 

Schools and early learning services will engage with parents about children returning at Level 2.

Distance learning is available for those unable to attend school, for example those who are self-isolating, because of potential contact with Covid.

Tertiary education facilities too will maintain the core capability to deliver comprehensive distance learning to students if needed.

If an education facility has a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, they must close on an individual or group basis for 72 hours, to allow contact tracing, and then potentially for a further 14 days if required.

We also agreed that when we make the decision to move levels, schools won’t be opened midweek – whenever the decision is made – they will open at the beginning of the following week. 

The same public health messages continue to apply to schools; keep children at home if they’re even slightly sick, and good hygiene such as hand washing are very important.

Where possible physical distancing is a good precaution. We do, however, know it is near impossible in an early learning environment and challenging in schools. So staying home if sick, good hygiene practices and regular cleaning become even more important here.

And all schools and early learning services will collect information about who’s there, so public health can contact people quickly if they needed.
We know parents will have lots of questions, but please give schools and early learning centres time to plan and contact you.

And again a reminder we’re not moving yet, this is just the framework

So that I hope gives you a good sense of the rationale and principles of Level 2. The place where we are still limiting contact with strangers, and playing it safe.

As you can see, it is a large step from where we are now. So my last message is an important one. 

When it comes the time to move, we want to move with confidence. 

That means the Ministry of Health and experts giving us the best advice on how to do that.

If that advice is to move in a phased way because Level 2 taken all at once has too many risks, because for instance it includes gatherings of people, I would rather take that advice and move out slowly than be in Level 3 longer than we need to. And equally, no one wants to make a decision that leads to us yo-yoing between levels.

Now again, no decisions have been made. The Director General has not provided us with advice yet on what decision we should take on Monday. We wait for all of the data to do that.  But if reducing risk means taking several steps into Level 2 rather than one big one, that may be what happens. But we all need to wait, and make that call when the time comes. 

And finally, a reminder to stick to the plan.

I know it’s Mother’s Day this weekend, and the urge to reach out will be strong, but we remain at Level 3, and so if your mum is not in your bubble, then reach out over the phone, or video, send a wee local present and make plans to catch up when it’s safe to do so.

There will no doubt be additional questions beyond the broad overview I have given today. Details are available at the COVID website, including examples for different workplaces. We have tried to provide as much as we can, and we’ve tried to work alongside industry and industry associations to provide guidance, but we cannot necessarily provide every answer. We have given ourselves time though, so if you’re a business in particular, and you need a question answered, please do reach out to MBIE for further information.

Ultimately, Level 2 is our safer normal. Not a return to business as usual. 

Treasury modelling has told us that we are better off in the longer term to move down through alert levels progressively and not yo-yo, so that does mean getting every stage right. That means both the decision to go there, but also what we do when we get there. 

If we think of ourselves as halfway down Everest, I think it’s clear no one wants to hike back up that peak.

The descent is known to be even more dangerous, and so we need to proceed with caution, with the highest degree of confidence, and to look after one another on the way.

I absolutely believe we can do that.

I’m now happy to take your questions.