Coronavirus: 'Big picture' of COVID-19 crisis and when the Government responded

The head of the Government's response to COVID-19, John Ombler, has provided a timeline of how the crisis unfolded and at which points officials responded with action. 

Speaking to the Epidemic Response Committee - a group of mainly Opposition MPs holding the Government to account while Parliament is suspended during lockdown - Ombler provided a "big picture" of the response so far. 


  • December 31: China informed WHO of the first cases of COVID-19
  • January 24: First COVID-19 monitoring team established in New Zealand
  • January 27: National Security System activated in New Zealand to respond to virus
  • January 27: Health staff begin meeting people on flights from China to New Zealand
  • February: Ministry of Health starts receiving all-of-Government strategy and policy input 
  • March 10: National Crisis Management Centre activated to coordinate response
  • March 21: Government announces alert level system to respond to COVID-19
  • March 26: Government imposes alert level 4 putting New Zealand into lockdown

Ombler said the coronavirus crisis can be traced back to the end of 2019, when the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified by China of 44 cases of a new respiratory disease.

Since COVID-19 was identified, Ombler said it has spread "far and wide", reaching more than 200 countries, infecting more than 600,000 people, and killing more than 30,000. 

Ombler said the real number of deaths is "likely to be higher". 

He said the Government first responded to the outbreak on January 27, when the National Security System was activated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

Since that time, he said there have been eight meetings of the Officials Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination, known as ODESC, and seven watch groups to support that. 

ODESC is a group of the heads of relevant Government departments that give the Prime Minister strategic policy advice on security and intelligence matters. It was activated in March 2019 after the Christchurch terror attack. 

Ombler said in terms of the Government response itself, the Ministry of Health first set up a COVID-19 monitoring team on January 24, and health staff began meeting people on flights from China on January 27. 

By February, the Ministry of Health started receiving support in its lead agency role with all-of-Government strategy and policy input - which Ombler was appointed to lead. 

"On Tuesday, March 10, the National Crisis Management Centre was activated and the chair of ODESC appointed me to lead the national response - three weeks ago today," he told the committee. 

Ombler is supported in his role by the Ministry of Health's Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the director of Civil Defence and Emergency Sarah Stuart-Black, Police Commissioner Mike Bush and Dr Peter Crabtree from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). 

"COVID-19 does truly present an unprecedented challenge to New Zealand - certainly in my lifetime," Ombler said. "The scale and fast-moving nature of this threat has required us to adapt our way of working and our operating models.

"This is not only an all-of-Government response - it's truly a national response."

He said the strategy under alert level 4 - which came into effect last week - is to eliminate the spread of the coronavirus by "going hard and going early to avoid our health system being overwhelmed the way it has been in other countries". 

"I expect within the coming month we will have a strong indication of our efforts there," Ombler said. "It depends on New Zealand's collective cooperation and commitment."

It comes as Otago University research modelling shows that up to 14,000 Kiwis could die if intensive efforts to eradicate the coronavirus fail. 

The modelling was considered alongside a range of other information to inform the Ministry of Health's advice to the Government on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The modelling shows that without the actions currently being taken, the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 would exact a high price in New Zealand," Dr Bloomfield said. 

"What is consistent across all the models is that we had a stark choice - let the virus spread unchecked and see large numbers of New Zealanders get sick, our health system overrun and many people dying, or taking firm measures to save lives."