'We can break the chain': Jacinda Ardern's message to Kiwis as New Zealand goes into lockdown

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a message for Kiwis as New Zealand goes into lockdown and a national state of emergency is declared: "We can break the chain."

The Prime Minister delivered a ministerial statement in Parliament on Wednesday as the Minister of Civil Defence Peeni Henare took the unprecedented move of declaring a state of national emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"At 11.59pm tonight, we move to the highest Alert Level of 4, and we, as a nation, go into self-isolation," Ardern said. "The trigger: early evidence of community transmission of COVID-19 in New Zealand."

The last time a national state of emergency was declared was in February 2011, following the 6.3 magnitude earthquake that struck Christchurch, which destroyed much of the city's infrastructure and crippled essential services.

"Today we put in place our country's second state of national emergency as we fight a global pandemic, as we fight to save New Zealanders' lives," Ardern said.

She said it was to "prevent the very worst that we've seen in other countries around the world from happening here.... to protect our essential health services.... to cushion the economic impacts of COVID-19".

An epidemic notice issued by the Prime Minister came into effect on Wednesday, just after midnight, and it will remain for three months with ongoing review, enabling the use of a number of 'special powers' in legislation.

In particular, it will allow for the extension of people currently in New Zealand on temporary visas that will expire between April 1, 2020 and the end of the epidemic notice. 

Ardern said despite New Zealand going into alert level 4 to combat COVID-19, Aotearoa is "unlike so many other gravely inundated countries" and that there is a "window of opportunity to stay home, break the chain of transmission, and save lives".

She said New Zealand has some things on its side such as an early response ahead of overrun hospitals and ahead of any Kiwi deaths. But she said that doesn't mean New Zealanders can be complacent.

"That's why we must take this period of self-isolation deadly seriously. This means we will go about life very differently to help slow down the spread of COVID-19. We all have a role to play."

The Prime Minister said Kiwis now face a country where only those in essential services will leave home to go to work while all others must stay home and stop interactions with those outside their home.

She said non-essential business premises will close, events and gatherings will not go ahead, schools will close, domestic travel will be limited, and public transport will be reserved for those undertaking essential services.

"From midnight tonight, we bunker down for four weeks to try and stop the virus in its tracks, to break the chain," Ardern said.

"Make no mistake this will get worse before it gets better. We will have a lag and cases will increase for the next week or so. Then we'll begin to know how successful we have been."

The Prime Minister's speech came just after the director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield announced 50 new confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, bringing the total to 205 cases.

Ardern said she is aware that the Government moved to lock down the country far ahead of when many other countries have done, with no Kiwi deaths recorded yet because of COVID-19, five people in New Zealand hospitals with the virus, and none in ICUs needing ventilators at this stage.

"But we have no time to waste. We could have waited to plan every intricate detail required to execute this closure, till we could answer every single question or circumstance," she said.

"Every hour we wait, is one more person, two more people, three more people, exposed to COVID-19....That is why we did not wait."

Ardern said the restrictions being put in place on New Zealanders' movements during the lockdown are the most significant in the country's modern history.

"I do not underestimate the gravity of what is being asked of you. But we have a limited window of opportunity and we must use every weapon we have," she said.

"New Zealanders want to see that these measures are being complied with but in a way that we're used to seeing as New Zealanders."

She said the police and military will be working together and there is assistance at the ready as required.

"If people do not follow the message here today, then the police will remind people of their obligations. They have the ability to escalate if required. They can arrest if needed, they can detain if needed."

But that would be a last resort, Ardern said.

"You are not alone. You will hear us, and see us, daily as we guide New Zealand through this period. It won't always be perfect. But the principle of what we are trying to do is the right one."

She also said success won't be instant.

"The benefit of what we do today, won't be felt for many days to come. Expect our numbers to keep rising, because they will. But over time, we will see change if we all stick to the rules.

"You may not be at work, but that doesn't mean you don't have a job. Your job is to save lives, and you can do that by staying home, and breaking the chain."