Coronavirus: New Zealand's COVID-19 alert levels, how they affects Kiwis

With 52 cases of coronavirus COVID-19 and a rapidly changing global landscape, New Zealand has been increased to alert level 2. 

The four-stage alert system was revealed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Saturday, with a focus on clear communication and ensuring Kiwis understand expectations on them individually and as a community. Different towns, cities, and regions may be at different alert levels at different times depending on their exposure. 

"The international situation is changing rapidly and we need to clearly signpost the changes New Zealanders will be asked to make as we step up our efforts to limit the spread of the virus," Ardern said. 

"The alert system means people can see and plan for the kinds of restrictions we may be required to put in place, which may be required rapidly.

"Based on expert medical advice and international evidence I am moving New Zealand to Alert Level 2, Reduce Contact. This will have a significant disruption on how we go about our daily lives, but it is necessary to protect lives."

Here is each alert level, what they mean for you, and what may prompt New Zealand to move to them:

Alert level one: Prepare

This level applies when COVID-19 is present in New Zealand but contained. Before Saturday, New Zealand was at this phase due to the risk of importing the illness and sporadic cases popping up. There was also a few cases of transmission within households. In response, some border measures were introduced, contact tracing began, self-isolation for the infected and their close contacts was required, and limits were put on mass gatherings. The public was also encouraged to consider how they were limiting their exposure through physical distancing and to stay home if they began to feel unwell. Key messages began to be frequently communicated, including to wash hands, cough into elbows and don't touch faces.

Alert level two: Reduce - New Zealand's current level

New Zealand moved to this level of Saturday after authorities deemed the likelihood of new cases being recorded as high. There has been an increase in imported cases and cases transmitted within households. This suggests that COVID-19 is contained, but the risk of community transmission is growing. Currently, there is no confirmation of community transmission in New Zealand, however, two cases don't have clear links to overseas travel and investigations remain underway. Under this level, border measures have been increased and more restrictions have been put on mass gatherings. Authorities are now calling for greater physical distancing on public transport, limiting non-essential travel around the country, employers start implementing new ways of working, such as remote working, businesses activate their continuity plans, and vulnerable people, including those over 70, stay at home. 

Alert level three: Restrict

This is the next level that could apply to New Zealanders. It would come into effect if authorities believed that there was a heightened risk that the illness is no longer contained. This could mean that community transmission is evident or that multiple clusters of COVID-19 break out. Those regions or centres with clear clusters or community transmission could have their travel limited, public venues and affected educational institutes would be closed, mass gatherings would be banned, and alternative ways of working would be required with some non-essential businesses closed. Changes would also be introduced within the health system. For example, primary care consultations would no longer be face-to-face, while elective services and procedures would be deferred to allow for healthcare staff to be freed up.

Alert level four: Eliminate

This is the top-level and would be activated if it is "likely" COVID-19 is not contained nationally or at a local level. There would have to be intensive and sustained transmission with widespread outbreaks. Under this level, people would need to stay at home, all educational facilities and non-essential businesses closed, supplies would be rationed, facilities would be requisitioned, travel would be severely limited and all healthcare services would be reprioritised. 

Coronavirus: New Zealand's COVID-19 alert levels, how they affects Kiwis

As Prime Minister Ardern said on Saturday, regardless of the alert level, supermarkets and essential services, like access to pharmaceuticals, will continue to operate. That means people shouldn't panic-buy, but shop normally. 

The alert system will be updated every time there is an update on cases.

"I ask that New Zealand does what we do so well. We are a country that is creative, practical, and community-minded," she said.

"We may not have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes, but we know how to rally and we know how to look after one another, and right now what could be more important than that. So thank you for all that you’re about to do."

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.