Countdown to Level 4: Three years since NZ's first days in lockdown

On March 25 2020, New Zealanders entered a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of a new and mysterious virus. Three years on, 1News revisits how Kiwis faced up to a once-in-a-century health crisis.

It's December 2 2019. Here's what's been in the headlines.

In the next few weeks, the eruption of Whakaari/White Island will shock the country.

A new 1News Colmar Brunton Poll shows Jacinda Ardern's coalition government has fallen to its lowest level of support in two years. A tight election is expected the following October.

In Auckland, Grace Millane's killer had just been convicted.

A few months earlier, Kiwis were disappointed as they watched the All Blacks finishing third in the Rugby World Cup after a disappointing semifinal loss to England.

On December 2, 10,000 kilometres away in Wuhan, China, a man showing fever symptoms turns up at a city hospital with an apparent case of pneumonia.

It's now believed that he was the first person to have officially presented to authorities with symptoms of a new novel coronavirus.

While many Kiwis suffer through the scorching summer ahead, thousands are becoming infected overseas. First in China, but then in Iran, Italy, and soon everywhere.

In January, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles spoke to Breakfast as the virus spread under the radar, causing many of the first outbreaks outside of China.

A virus looms, NZ's borders on the blink

Cases grow globally, as does talk of border restrictions overseas.

By February, all New Zealanders returning home from mainland China are told to self-isolate, and Kiwis watch nervously as an Air New Zealand "mercy flight" flies 190 Wuhan evacuees to Auckland.

Later on, the airline flies thousands of New Zealanders home on repatriation flights.

Throughout the month, health officials shoot down claims the country had received its first cases as rumours and misinformation spreads across social media.

But by the end of February, the country has had its first known case of Covid-19.

Front page of the Weekend Herald after the discovery of New Zealand's first official case of Covid-19.

Borders are still open, and a traveller from virus hotspot Iran has tested positive. More cases were found soon after, but all were linked to overseas travel — for now.

'Lockdown' — National state of emergency declared

With three weeks to lockdown, New Zealand's trajectory still looked anything but certain at the beginning of March.

Covid-19 is yet to be declared a global pandemic, and while China placed tens of millions into lockdown, other countries are now taking a cautious approach as researchers seek to quickly study how contagious the virus really is.

Health authorities tell Kiwis to keep up with normal life — after confirmation of the country's first case sparked panic-buying and gloomy front page headlines.

Come March 8, hundreds from around the world are gathering in Queenstown for the World Hereford Conference. That morning, the health minister David Clark tells Q+A that the risk of a widespread community outbreak is still "low".

It only becomes known later that the Queenstown event is the country's first super-spreader event, eventually linked to dozens of cases around the country.

But by March 13, scenes on TV of overwhelmed emergency rooms overseas and new research are presenting a reality that's becoming increasingly unavoidable. The virus is infectious and deadly without a vaccine.

Large gatherings are being cancelled, and the World Health Organization has now declared a global pandemic. Around this time, officials begin working on the final alert level system that would later come to define New Zealand's response.

It takes only days for Aotearoa's borders to be snapped shut on Thursday, March 19.

Around 40,000 visitors and tourists from Europe, alongside tens of thousands of other people who aren't residents, have just been told to go home.

Kiwis are urged to get home while flights are still available as Finance Minister Grant Robertson loans Air New Zealand nearly a billion dollars to avoid it becoming insolvent.

On Saturday, March 21, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces an "alert level system" in a rare address to the nation from her Beehive office — and urges Kiwis to be prepared to move quickly. The country is placed in Alert Level 2, which health experts say is inadequate.

Columnists opine the ninth-floor address is akin to a speech in wartime — as some ponder whether the Labour-led government should form a "grand coalition" with the opposition to share decision-making power amid a crisis.

Two days later, on Monday, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirms at his 1pm media briefing that two cases are now believed to be of unknown and unlinked origin.

Calls for normal life to shut down are now at a fever pitch.

Less than two hours later, Ardern announces the country will immediately move into Level 3, with a move to a Level 4 lockdown 48 hours later.

"If community transmission takes off in New Zealand the number of cases will double every five days. If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die," she says.

"There is no easy way to say that – but it is the reality we have seen overseas – and the possibility we must now face here.

"Together, we must stop that happening, and we can."

The country will shut down for at least a month, the PM says.

"If we after those four weeks, we have been successful, we hope we will be able to ease up on restrictions. If we haven’t, we’ll find ourselves living with them for longer."

Police would be on the streets to patrol Kiwis' movements if necessary, Ardern warns.

The bubble of five million

In the next 48 hours, Covid-19 ads blanket the airwaves as confusion reigns over what businesses can stay open. The Government publicly rebukes The Warehouse after the store prematurely asserts itself as an essential service.

And then, at the stroke of midnight on March 25, New Zealand goes into lockdown.

Four days later, on March 29, authorities reports the country's first Covid-19 death — a woman on the West Coast — as official figures rise to around 70 new cases a day.

Many news stories from the first several weeks tell of a hectic, chaotic, and unusual time.

Parliament's 120 MPs are replaced by a virtual 11-member "Epidemic Response Committee" — chaired by National Party leader Simon Bridges.

At Auckland's ASB Showgrounds, officials have drafted in hundreds of unused tourist campervans to act as makeshift isolation facilities for people returning from overseas without a place to self-isolate.

Web developers work on pages that list how long waits are to enter supermarkets as capacity limits see long lines. Chemistry students at Otago University take to making their own hand sanitiser while national supplies run low. The country's largest magazine publisher folds with fears that popular titles would never return.

At Cabinet, ministers are told they need to buy 12,000 pigs, after pork demand disappears overnight, with officials warning of pig carcasses piling up with nowhere to go.

Meanwhile, greenkeepers warn that many of the country's golf courses would see their turf destroyed if they weren't classified as essential workers soon.

By early April, most ordinary Kiwis have taken to a new normal. In other words, spending time at home with very little to do — aside from baking bread.

That was except for Health Minister David Clark, who initially enjoys both a mountain biking ride and a 23-kilometre family trip to a remote beach — in violation of the rules.

When exposed, Clark is demoted but stays as Health Minister until June.

Cases peak and restrictions ease

A week after lockdown begins, cases are beginning to peak between 70-80 a day — though we won't know it for at least another week. Infectious diseases specialist Dr Ayesha Verrall tells 1News that life won't go back to normal after the lockdown finishes.

The PM doesn't mince her words when addressing lockdown rulebreakers, calling them "idiots" at a 1pm media stand-up in early April.

Behind closed doors, continuing uncertainty about how the virus could spread saw officials prepare examples of worst-case scenarios if Covid-19 turned out to be too hard to tame.

These included a substantially longer wage subsidy and even the possibility of a more stringent or longer lockdown, according to a Cabinet briefing on April 7.

On April 15, an anti-lockdown group of academics emerge to call for an end to lockdown, but polls show an overwhelming number of Kiwis trust the authorities' plans.

Meanwhile, Police Minister Stuart Nash hits out at checkpoints that have popped up controlling traffic in and out of towns. He calls organisers "ratbags and renegades".

Around that time, supermarkets remove limits on toilet paper and declare the shortage over. Cases are now clearly falling.

On April 28, New Zealanders celebrate the drop to Level 3 as McDonald's and other fast food outlets are inundated with orders.

One week later, the country celebrates its first day without a new case of the virus.

Level 3 lasts two weeks as pressure from the opposition and other business groups builds for fewer restrictions, which happens soon after on May 11. The opening of bars and events of up-to-100 people are still to come.

Capacity restrictions see Ardern and Clarke Gayford turned away from brunch at a Wellington cafe.

Level 2 lasts a month as the Government and experts cautiously watch cases dwindle.

By the end of May, a return to complete normality was in sight. Parliament's hastily-setup Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by the opposition, is stood down.

On June 9, New Zealand moves down to Level 1, coincidentally on the same day as the country's last active case recovers. Ardern says she did a "little dance" to celebrate

The Government's Unite Against Covid-19 website and social media pages are rebranded Unite For The Recovery, while new ads from the Ministry of Health say "participating outlets" will have QR codes that Kiwis can scan to help contact tracing.

Unite for the recovery

Thank you New Zealand. We made it to Alert Level 1. We united against COVID-19, and came through. And now it’s time to unite for our recovery. We can all unite, by buying local to help get our businesses and communities humming, seeing New Zealand and experiencing our culture, and buying Kiwi-made goods to help local producers thrive. We’ve shown that we can do this. Now let’s do it again. Unite for the recovery.

Posted by Unite against COVID-19 on Monday, June 8, 2020

Headlines suggest and trumpet that Aotearoa is now coronavirus-free.

Few could have predicted the whirlwind months and years that would come to follow.