New Zealand to reduce the level of alert from 4 to 3 amid continued lockdown
WELLINGTON, Apr 16, 2020, NZ Herald. New Zealand could be coming out of lockdown next week and moving back to alert level 3. Exactly what that will look like remains unclear, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying much-anticipated details will be unveiled this week. We spoke to a range of sector leaders to see how life at alert level 3 could, and should, look like, NZ Herald reported.
A walk on the beach, swim in the tide, Sunday drive and a lazy fish could all be possible in level three, but don’t even think about entering a gym or public swimming pool until level two.
There is no definitive word on public playgrounds opening but the doors to public venues such as libraries, museums, cinemas, food courts and amusement parks will remain firmly shut.
As the lockdown lifts and people are allowed out of their homes there is a quiet expectation that will include allowing people to enjoy hobbies such as fishing or surfing albeit at a safe physical distance.
Travel in areas that have clusters or community transmission will still be limited so, depending on location, that may rule out a trip to the bach as the government still tries to contain the community outbreak.
The duck shooting season is due to open on May 1, but there is still a big question about whether this will be possible under level three and Fish & Game says although it is hopeful the season will still be able to go ahead it will make a decision after the Government’s announcement on Friday.
A spokesperson for the New Zealand Fish and Game Council said it wanted to reassure hunters it was doing everything it could in the circumstances to ensure it had a safe game bird season and would advise as soon as possible.
Exercise Association of New Zealand chief executive Richard Beddie, whose members include gyms, expected gyms would open under level two with restrictions such as limited numbers, enforced physical distancing and no sharing of equipment where possible.
It was also possible that temperatures could be checked at entry and masks were needed, he said.
The education sector
In theory, the alert level table indicates all educational institutions should reopen at level 3 except for those who have current cases.
On that basis the Ministry of Education has advised schools that, if the Cabinet decides to end level 4 lockdown at midnight on April 22 as originally announced, then schools should prepare to reopen on April 29 and early learning centres might reopen a day earlier.
However the ministry says schools and centres may initially open for “some, but not all, of your children/students”.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins has said a priority will be children of essential workers to ensure that their parents can go to work.
He has also noted that older, high-school-aged children are more likely to be able to stay two metres apart than younger children, implying that senior students may go back to school sooner than primary and preschool children.
Secondary Principals Council chairman James Morris said it would be very difficult to provide normal classes only for children of essential workers.
“They would be scattered throughout the different classes. You would have an entire teaching workforce there with one or two people in each of the classes,” he said.
He said another option of starting with NCEA students would also create problems because they were often caring for younger siblings at home.
And any move to teach some classes on different days, leaving students to work at home on the other days, would not reduce the risk of spreading the virus because students would be going home to mix with siblings in other classes.
Police and the courts
Police enforce the various levels of restriction – they do not make the rules. They will be led by the restrictions set by the Government for each alert level.
And even after the official rules are laid out, police officers will have to use discretion to enforce them.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster said when the shift to alert level 3 happens he expects a “greater number of businesses to be trading”.
Officers so far have been focused on educating the public about the lockdown but once the shift happens they will focus on deliberate rulebreakers – such as large gatherings.
Coster said more workers would be on the roads and although patrols had been pared back during alert level 4 – a resurgence was expected.
Police sources told the Herald they feared what would happen if different regions had different restrictions.
For example the Waitematā District in Auckland covers the North Shore, West Auckland and Rodney.
If some or all were at different alert levels it could be a “nightmare” for police to get their heads around the various boundaries and difference in rules.
As of Monday, police have caught 677 people breaching the lockdown rules will prosecute 84. A further 582 have been warned.
When alert level 3 was confirmed the courts closed down much of its business to the public.
A large number of matters were adjourned or dealt with by audio-visual-link (AVL) hearings or telephone conferences.
When the lockdown began court access tightened even further – effectively shutting down all but the provision of essential services.
People can now only enter the District Court or High Court for criminal proceedings if they are “required to be there for business of the court”.
Witnesses, complainants, supporters and members of the public need permission from the presiding judge to enter the courthouse and all public counters are closed to the public.
Accredited members of the media can go to court to ensure the principles of open justice continue to be observed.
But all jury trials have been suspended until the end of July.
When the shift to alert level 3 happens it is likely only essential cases will go ahead.
The District Court is hearing all bail applications, case reviews, and pleas, and basic sentencing is going ahead.
The High Court is hearing custodial remands, criminal appeals, pre-trial applications and low-profile sentencing.
The restrictions are likely to stay in place during level 3 but more courtrooms will be available for AVL hearings, meaning more cases can be heard.
Everyone due to attend court who are not at risk or in self-isolation should do so.
People will be contacted directly of hearings need to be rescheduled.
Call 0800 COURTS for more information about bail hearings or 0800 4 FINES for court fines.
House sales have ground to a virtual halt during the Covid-19 lockdown and leading real estate figures hope a move to alert level 3 will help the industry get back on its feet.
Key to that would be allowing buyers to once again visit and look around homes they might want to buy.
However, it was too early to say whether this would take place or not because leading real estate agencies and lobby groups – including the Property Council and Real Estate Institute – were still meeting the Government to discuss options.
Peter Thompson, managing director of Barfoot & Thompson, backed New Zealand’s earlier move to go into alert level 4 and said his agency had still sold about 145 houses during the first two weeks of lockdown.
But most of those sales were to people who had already viewed the property before the lockdown.
He said most tasks could now be done online – including signing purchase agreements and online auctions – but in-person viewings remained crucial.
He hoped alert level 3 would allow agents to take potential buyers through homes in ones or twos or small groups. Open homes might return at alert level 2, he said.
Ray White Remuera’s Steen Nielsen said he had done home viewings in the week leading up to the lockdown in which he spent extra time wiping down surfaces before and after people were led through for viewings, and also providing sanitiser.
The other cloud over house sales was settlements and whether buyers and sellers would be allowed to move homes during alert level 3 and whether furniture removal companies could operate.
Real Estate Institute chief executive Bindi Norwell had nearly 6000 property settlements had potentially been affected by the four-week lockdown and the industry was keen to allow people to settle and safely move house as soon as possible
“Safety is paramount and we hope to have more clarity by Thursday,” she said.
Supermarkets, retail and hospitality
Supermarkets and dairies are essential and will be open at all alert levels.
Food and Grocery Council spokesman Brent Webling said little would change for his organisation’s members, which are on the supply side – though he hoped supermarket shopping might be less frantic and there would be more time to get goods onto shelves.
The only change they would like to see in alert level 3 would be magazines back in supermarkets.
“It perplexed many people that magazines were the only grocery item in the whole fast-moving consumer goods network deemed to be non-essential.”
A Foodstuffs spokeswoman said they were continuing to assess how stepping back to level 3, and level 2 in time, might affect operations.
Alert level 3 was unclear for the hospitality sector, Hospitality New Zealand president Jeremy Smith said, but they were hoping to at least offer takeaway meals.
They were also lobbying the Government to convert current on-premise alcohol licenses to off-premise licenses, Smith said.
That way they could offer something unique; like a cooked meal for four people and a bottle of wine or burgers and cocktails, he said.
“We are looking to create a point of difference to, at the very least, try to generate some revenue while we are waiting to go from level 3 down to level 2 and we can reopen.”
Already 99 per cent of bars and restaurants complied well with health and safety requirements, Smith said, and he did not believe any additional requirements would be significant.
“If you look at Australia and the UK all their takeaways are functioning as normal.”
How long the country spent in level 3 before it could move to a lower level would be critical for businesses, he said.
They anticipated even if they could open at the end of the four-week shutdown, 20 to 25 per cent of hospitality businesses were going to go under.
“The longer it drags on that number is going to increase.”
The sector employed about 190,000 people, so job losses would be significant.
His message to the public was to support local and, while being careful, get back into the social environment when they could.
“Zoom and Facebook and Messenger are great ways of communicating but nothing beats breaking bread together and building bonds, friendships and business relationships over a meal.”
Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said they did not know exactly how alert level 3 would look, but hoped the move would be accompanied by a loosening of restrictions on E-commerce, so people would be able to shop online.
They also hoped that, subject to safety requirements, shops would be able to open, he said.
“But really those are points we need the Government to come to the party and provide some advice on.”
E-commerce would make a significant difference for many retailers, he said.
“There are a lot of unmet consumer needs out there. We have had a month with almost no shopping.
“There is a whole range of things that aren’t readily available that we would normally expect to be there.”
If the only way to fulfil that was through online sales then they expected that would be well used, he said.
The health sector
Hospitals, medical practices and pharmacies are listed as essential services and people can continue to seek their services during alert level 3 and 4.
At both levels, though, primary care consultations should not be face-to-face setting, but done, for example, over the phone or via video call.
Any needing medical help, should phone their doctor or hospital first, and phone the pharmacy to make sure they can go inside.
At-risk groups may need to ask someone to pick up medicines.
To free up medical facilities in anticipation of an outbreak of Covid-19 cases, services have been reprioritised at alert level 4.
At level 3 non-acute (elective) services and procedures in hospitals will continue to be deferred.
Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr John Bonning said moving to alert level 3 needed to find the right balance between maintaining social distancing and getting the economy moving again.
“We are expecting a small surge of cases with a relaxing of the rules, but we are prepared for that.”
There had been about a 50 per cent drop in people seeking acute care during alert level 4, largely due to a drop in road crashes and sporting injuries, and no major Covid-19 outbreak.
But there were concerns some people were not seeking the help they needed as they thought they should stay home.
“We are not overwhelmed, yet, not even slightly.
“People with chronic issues like diabetes, heart failure, chest pain – we hope they will continue to come and seek help and are not staying at home letting it get worse.”
ACC statistics showed in the first week of lockdown injury claims were down to about a third of normal levels, but thousands of Kiwis were still injuring themselves.
There had also been relative increases in injuries like strains, and in sports like mountain biking and skateboarding, with anecdotes from emergency departments indicating many people were trying out new sports or getting back into exercise with more free time.
“We are getting lots of stories of people who have not exercised in a giving it a go and injuring themselves, or trying new sports like skateboarding and breaking limbs.
“Exercise is a critical aspect of keeping well in the body and mind, so I am not at all suggesting not to exercise, just to do so sensibly.”
Disease monitoring, cancer screening and elective surgeries had all been reduced to free up medical facilities, and Bonning said these needed to be relooked at as the alert levels changed.
“Those things are not going away. The same number that were going to get cancer pre Covid-19 are getting cancer now.
“If a person is not getting a coronary stent today then they are at risk of a heart attack the next month, or if they are not getting a gall bladder out today by next week we could be looking at a major infection.
“So we are holding our breath waiting for the wave [of Covid-19 cases] but we need to be looking closely at how that is affecting other services and health outcomes.”
Business leaders are under no illusion: level 3 will be little different to the restrictions of level 4.
“People will not be gathering at cafes, nor can I see the Government opening up the city,” said Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett.
However, Barnett and Heart of the City chief executive Viv Beck believe E-commerce and online sales will be relaxed for companies that meet health and physical distancing rules.
Contactless food deliveries and retailers setting up appointments for customers are other possibilities to breathe economic life into the central city, says Beck.
When the central city went into level 3 for a couple of days before level 4, pedestrian numbers plummeted from 40,000 on a normal trading day to between 6000 and 8000.
Retail sales in the first week of lockdown were $1.1 million, down from $27m on the same week in 2019, said Beck.
Barnett is expecting the rules to be relaxed for the distribution of goods around the city, with firms being allowed to access containers and fill warehouses with stock. Export manufacturers will have more flexibility and sawmills will reopen to provide packaging.
The two leaders believe people who can work from home will continue to work from home under level 3.
“I see level 3 as an economic waiting room. I don’t see retail happening, I don’t see hospitality happening,” he said.
Opinions are divided on the construction sector. Barnett can see the first steps being taken in the residential sector where there are fewer people and groups together.
However, Civil Contractors NZ chief executive Peter Silcock believes the rules will be relaxed for the 40,000 to 50,000 workers in the sector, most of whom have not been able to work from home during the level 4 lockdown.
His understanding of the level 3 requirements is if people cannot work from home they can go to work so long as health and safety is managed around physical distancing and tracking people in and out of sites. Some work may require protective clothing.
Civil Contractors has been working with the rest of the construction industry on developing standards and protocols for level 3 to get people safely back at work.
“Companies are keen to restart because that is how people make their living. The longer the break goes on the more chance there is of having companies failing,” Silcock said.
Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope wanted to see clear and certain guidelines in various sectors and industries for businesses to operate under level 3.
“The real key thing for them to open is, can they demonstrate that they can meet their normal health and safety obligations acknowledging Covid-19 is a risk they have to manage,” said Hope.
Based on the economic numbers, he assumed about 20 per cent of businesses were operating under level 4 and would like to see that figure climb to about 70 per cent under level 3.