Coronavirus: Experts react to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's alert system announcement

This is our new normal. That's the message from nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson after New Zealand increased its alert level in response to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

New Zealand now has 52 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness, which has infected more than 270,000 people worldwide and killed at least 11,000. In response to the pandemic, Aotearoa has imposed a raft of strict regulations in an effort to safeguard Kiwis, including border closures and restricting mass gatherings to 100 people indoors.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Saturday a four-level alert system, which has clear measures to be implemented as we move between levels. New Zealand is currently on level 2, meaning that restrictions already revealed, people over the age of 70 should also stay home, alternative work methods should be put into place and non-essential travel should be limited.

With New Zealand potentially under the restrictions for a while - a vaccine is believed to be around 18 months away - Dr Dickinson said this should be considered our new normal.

"I think [the alert system] is great because it helps New Zealanders figure out where we are and hopefully with the word 'alert' in it, they are starting to take it seriously," she said.

"It is really good to be informed on an alert level. I think because it allows you to understand where we are at.

"People just need to pay attention, make sure they are listening to the alert levels, make sure they are behaving in a way that they individually can try and reduce the amount of transmission so that if everybody does that, we are really going to stop [it]."

Infection specialist David Murdoch agreed the alert system would assist with clearly guiding Kiwis.

"I think it is great... I think it gives a clear communication of where we are and where we might go, so I think this is excellent," he told Newshub.

He said New Zealand had gone hard and gone early, as the Prime Minister had suggested.

"We need to keep reinforcing that message… Things have changed very rapidly and we are getting very good communication about that."

Breaking down the guidelines for alert level 2, Dr Dickinson said it was up to everybody to be responsible and limit exposure.

"Workplaces, you are going to have to play ball. You are going to have to reduce the amount of contact your employees will be doing. Hopefully, a lot of workplaces have now had the time in the last week to get those measures in place."

One way people can help stop the spread is only travelling when people feel it is necessary.

"That is really going to help us stop any spread if there is any going nationwide versus just being in a contained region where actually we have much more control over it and much more hope not to spread through the country," she said.

"Just assume that you have it. It is the easiest way to help us behave... If you see somebody around you not behaving in the way that will help minimise the spread, call them out on it. It might just be that they don't know or they don't understand. This is where we pull together.

"If you see people panic-buying at the supermarket. Just give them a bit of a chat, say, 'hey, we need all of this in together'."

In announcing the new alert level, Ardern said every effort was needed to stop this "unprecedented global pandemic". 

"Protecting New Zealanders from the virus is our number one objective, and we must take decisive action to prevent the worst occurring here," Ardern said.

"New Zealand is fighting an unprecedented global pandemic. We must fight by going hard and going early with new measures to slow the transmission of the virus."

She said she understood the measures would cause disruption, but they were in the national interest. 

"I know many New Zealanders are anxious. The alert system is designed to offer certainty around future action and the ability for people to plan and prepare for any future eventuality. Please be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19."

What we know about coronavirus

Coronavirus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs. However, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present, according to the World Health Organization. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces is unknown at this stage, but some viruses can remain active for days. 

The WHO was first informed of cases of the virus in Wuhan on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread through human-to-human transmission. 

"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.

"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."

There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
  • washing your hands before eating
  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • not eating shared or communal food
  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.

A full explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here.

The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.