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New Zealand reports zero active coronavirus cases as Ardern prepares to lift all remaining restrictions


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Hagen Hopkins/Pool Photo via AP)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Hagen Hopkins/Pool Photo via AP)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Hagen Hopkins/Pool Photo via AP)

New Zealand reported zero active cases of Covid-19 for the first time since the pandemic reached its shores, indicating that it has achieved its aim of eliminating the virus.

The South Pacific nation said Monday that the last of its coronavirus patients has recovered. That makes it one of the few countries in the world to have successfully eradicated the pathogen, and the first among those that suffered a sizable outbreak. Only a handful of nations can make the claim, mostly small islands that had few infections to begin with.

The development came hours before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was expected to announce a lifting of all remaining restrictions on people and businesses - other than strict border controls to keep the virus out - paving the way for a resumption of normal life.

New Zealand pursued an explicit elimination strategy rather than seeking to merely suppress transmission of the virus. It enforced one of the strictest shutdowns in the world, asking everyone to stay at home and allowing only essential services to operate. While this has almost certainly triggered a deep recession, the government says elimination of the virus should allow the economy to recover more rapidly than many of its peers.

It is taking a cautious approach to the elimination milestone, however. The Ministry of Health's definition of elimination is 28 days of no new cases after the last person to have contracted the virus via community transmission left quarantine, which would be achieved on June 15.

The seven-week shutdown ended May 14, and the cabinet will decide Monday whether to lower the nation's alert level to 1, which would remove the last remaining restrictions, including the requirement for social distancing. Ardern is scheduled to hold a news conference Monday afternoon.

Ardern's masterclass in crisis management has won her praise at home and abroad. Support for the prime minister and her Labour Party surged in recent opinion polls, forcing the main opposition party to replace its leader less than four months out from a general election.

But it is not a foregone conclusion that Ardern will sweep to victory at the Sept. 19 vote, with unemployment expected to soar in coming months.

The closed border is taking a heavy toll on the tourism sector, which was the nation's biggest source of foreign exchange earnings before the pandemic, and there is little prospect of it fully recovering until a vaccine is found.

There has also been criticism that New Zealand's response to the virus was too extreme, as neighboring Australia appears to have achieved similar results with less stringent measures. During its shutdown it allowed more industries to continue operating, such as construction, and consumers were still able to get a haircut or buy a takeaway meal, keeping many workers on lower incomes employed.

However, there are early signs that New Zealand's status as a virus-free haven will work to its advantage. It is in talks with Australia to open a so-called travel bubble, and the Education Minister has said the country may become an even more desirable destination for foreign students, even if they need to serve a two-week quarantine on arrival.

The theory behind New Zealand's elimination strategy is that Covid-19 has a longer incubation period than influenza - an average of five to six days and as long as two weeks, compared with two to three days for the flu.

That means authorities have time to identify and isolate those who have been in contact with an infected person before they themselves become infectious.

New Zealand recorded a total of 1,504 confirmed and probable cases of Covid-19 and 22 deaths. It hasn't had a new case for 17 days.