Coronavirus: Dr Ashley Bloomfield issues notice to clarify self-isolation, exercise requirements

In a bid to dispel confusion about what's expected of Kiwis during the COVID-19 lockdown, the Director-General of Health has issued a new notice laying out requirements.

Since last Thursday, New Zealand has been under a nationwide lockdown requiring people to stay indoors as much as possible, closing non-essential businesses and shutting schools. The intensive measures have been implemented in an effort to limit person-to-person contact, and therefore potential exposure to the infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has infected more than a million people worldwide and 950 in New Zealand.

However, despite the restrictions coming into force more than a week ago, there is still confusion about some conditions imposed on Kiwis. 

While questions initially swirled around what was an essential service, there have also been queries about expectations during self-isolatiom, including how far people can go during exercise and whether driving to a park is acceptable. The latter was raised again on Friday after it emerged the Health Minister drove to a park to ride his mountain bike.

On Friday night, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield issued a notice under Section 70(1)(f) of the Health Act 1956 to provide greater clarity about self-isolation expectations. Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Dr Bloomfield said compliance with rules had been high, but he acknowledged some questions remained.

The notice highlights that Kiwis must stay at their residence unless it is for "essential personal movement", and while out, they must maintain physical distancing. "Essential personal movement" includes accessing essential businesses or providing essential services as well as for leaving the house for "limited recreation purposes".

However, the notice puts some conditions on this. 

A person can only leave their residence for exercise or recreation if it is done in an "outdoor place that can be readily accessed from their residence" and does not involve any activity that exposes "participants to danger or may require search and rescue services". While out people must continue to be two metres away from others, with large gatherings not allowed.

What is meant by an outdoor area that can be readily accessed isn't explicitly defined in the notice, but when asked on Saturday, Dr Bloomfield said: "It may be walking out your front door or cycling from your front door".

"But we have also said if you need to drive a short distance in your local area to get to a place of recreation, and thay may be necessary for some people, that is fine".

For information about the dos and don'ts during lockdown, Kiwis have been pointed towards the Government's COVID-19 website, which is regularly updated with the latest advice. 

The 'Frequently Asked Questions' section of the website currently says driving a short distance is permitted while the 'Exercising safely and using your car' section says people can only travel if they're "accessing essential services", "shopping for food or medicine" or "an essential worker travelling to, from, or as part of your essential work".

The website also now has a section on "what does 'local' mean". That's defined as "the area near your home that you regularly visit for essential services". 

"What is considered local will differ depending on where you live. City dwellers may have a supermarket or dairy close by. If you live rurally, you may need to take a drive to reach these," the website says.

Dr Bloomfield's newly issued notice provides information about what are appropriate shared bubble arrangements and notes that people can leave their residences in emergencies.

It also lays out the enforcement power of police in assisting Medical Offciers of Health. Further power for authorities is given through the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act.

New Police Commissioner Andrew Coster welcomed the guidance and said the vast majority of people were doing a "tremendous job" under the restrictions.

"The Health Notice makes it clear what types of outdoor exercise and recreation people shouldn’t do. Outside of that, we are asking people to stay local, apply common sense and not do anything that could risk exposure to injury or require search and rescue services," he said.

"The public should not notice any significant change to policing as we continue to prioritise high visibility reassurance to the community, and a continued focus on day-to-day Police work."

The lockdown is scheduled to last for more than two more weeks. However, despite the intensive measures, officials have warned case numbers will likely continue to increase across the country for several more days as those who contracted the illness prior to the lockdown develop symptoms and get tested.

Whether the lockdown is extended depends largely on the level of community transmission. If it remains high, the restrictions may continue nationally or at a regional level. Currently, only 1 percent of cases in New Zealand are defined as community transmission, but 17 percent are under investigation.

What we know about the coronavirus

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) in Wuhan, China on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread via human-to-human transmission. It causes the coronavirus COVID-19 illness.

The virus 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. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces isn't fully understood, but some studies have suggested that on some materials it could be for days.

"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.

Several papers from both New Zealand and overseas have suggested that intensive measures may be required until a vaccine is developed, which is between a year and 18 months away.

"The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package - or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission - will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more) - given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed," a paper from the Imperial College of London says.

Unless the virus is eliminated from the country or vaccinated against, relaxing the lockdown may lead to another spike in cases, which if not properly managed with the ramping up of restrictions, could overwhelm the health system.

New Zealand's first virus-related death was announced on Sunday. Greymouth woman Anne Guenole, aged in her 70s, returned a positive test for COVID-19 after initially being diagnosed with influenza, complicated by an underlying health condition.

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
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • 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.