By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand lifted all social and economic restrictions except border controls after declaring on Monday it was free of the coronavirus, one of the first countries in the world to return to pre-pandemic normality.
Public and private events, the retail and hospitality industries and all public transport were allowed to resume without the distancing rules still in place across much of the world.
“While the job is not done, there is no denying this is a milestone … Thank you, New Zealand,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference, saying she had danced for joy at the news.
“We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time, it is a sustained effort.”
New Zealand’s 5 million people are emerging from the pandemic while big economies such as Brazil, Britain, India and the United States continue to grapple with spread of the virus.
Its 75 days of restrictions included about seven weeks of a strict lockdown in which most businesses were shut and everyone except essential workers had to stay home.
“Today, 75 days later, we are ready,” Ardern said, announcing that social distancing restrictions would end at midnight.
Ardern said she had done a “little dance” when she was told there were no more active COVID-19 cases in New Zealand, surprising her two-year-old daughter, Neve.
“She was caught a little by surprise and she joined it having absolutely no idea why I was dancing around the lounge.”
New Zealand has reported 1,154 infections and 22 deaths from COVID-19 since the virus arrived in late February.
Ardern had vowed to eliminate, not merely contain, the virus, which meant stopping transmission for two weeks after the last known case was cleared. For now, everyone entering the country will continue to be tested and quarantined.
Ardern was quickly trending on Twitter, and many said they wanted to move to New Zealand.
“Such news really brightens up your day! There is hope and this too shall pass for the entire world,” one user tweeted.
Former prime minister Helen Clark tweeted: “Clear leadership and an engaged public have produced this result.”
Ardern, 39, has won global praise for her leadership during the pandemic.
Her popularity at home has soared and recent surveys suggest she is well placed to win a second term in September’s election.
Even so, the government will need to show it can revive the economy, which is expected to sink into recession.
Opposition parties have criticised Ardern’s decision to maintain restrictions for so long.
Ardern did not commit to a timeline for a quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ with Australia to facilitate tourism that the industries in both countries have been pushing for.
“We will need to move cautiously here. No one wants to jeopardize the gains New Zealand has made,” she said.
Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Kevin Liffey