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New Zealand on verge of victory after five weeks of strict measures sees numbers plummet

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In hand: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has strong public support after dealing well with difficult situations in the past. Photo: AFP via Getty

In hand: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has strong public support after dealing well with difficult situations in the past. Photo: AFP via Getty

POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In hand: Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has strong public support after dealing well with difficult situations in the past. Photo: AFP via Getty

For five weeks, New Zealanders have endured some of the toughest lockdown conditions anywhere in the world.

The rules were conveyed loudly, clearly and frequently: no socialising with anyone outside your household; no beach swimming or boating; no holidays; no hiking; no children's playgrounds; no weddings; no funerals; no haircuts; and no restaurants or even Uber Eats.

"Educational" police roadblocks - and, in about 500 cases, prosecution - faced anyone failing to comply with the "stay home and save lives" mantra of Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister.

Now, the country appears to be on the verge of victory.

This week, health officials announced that infection rates had fallen low enough to hope that the island nation had achieved effective elimination of the disease, and Ms Ardern lifted some, but not all, of the restrictions.

From today, New Zealanders can visit fast-food outlets, buy takeaway coffee, purchase plants from garden centres and visit some family members living outside their household.

"I feel like Sir Edmund Hillary at base camp ready to attack the mountain," said Murray Traill, a McDonald's franchise owner, as he switched on the fryer to serve his first customer at 5am.

He was expecting a busy day. Traffic controllers have been hired and police prepared to deal with frustrated customers facing long queues for their first takeaway in weeks.

"I am not sure how much longer we could have kept going," said Margaret Fullon, a florist in Wellington.

"It is really too soon to say if the sales we are now allowed to do under the new conditions will provide enough income. But we have no other choice, and this is better than being completely closed."

The guidelines are still stricter than most nations' highest-alert level.

Some school gates have been unlocked and classrooms disinfected - but only for children of parents employed in "essential services".

Shops can resume trading, but customers must phone ahead or go online to make orders, and collect goods from pavements outside the store, or have them couriered.

Swimming at local beaches is allowed but only near the shoreline, and building and construction labourers can only work if they can keep apart from colleagues.

Families may now hold funerals to bury their loved ones - provided they are attended by no more than 10 people.

Initial modelling for the epidemic in New Zealand was dire. Predictions included 14,000 fatalities, two-thirds of the population infected and up to 32,000 needing hospital care, 4,000 potentially requiring ventilators.

But the country went into the crisis with several advantages. It has a well-developed health service, a population of just five million and a government that had already won the confidence of the public following its handling of the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch and the volcanic eruption at White Island.

Its geographic isolation, always problematic in market terms, also proved an unexpected blessing.

Knowing that the concept of isolation was woven into the fabric of Kiwi life, culture and identity, Ms Ardern moved quickly to lead the country into a total lockdown long before many larger nations with more infections.

It wasn't without moments of panic. When Ms Ardern imposed the level-four lockdown, Kiwis bought enough toilet paper to last several years and alcohol sales went up 1,800pc.

But by and large, people embraced the restrictions. And it appears to have paid off. New Zealand has recorded just 19 deaths and 1,469 cases of Covid-19, of which 1,180 have since recovered.

Studies showing new infection rates in the low single digits "give us confidence that we have achieved our goal of elimination", Dr Ashley Bloomfield, director general of health, said yesterday, though he cautioned it did not mean the virus was gone completely. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent