Jacinda Ardern signals earlier move to COVID-19 alert level 1 when 'all restrictions basically go'

Say goodbye to gathering limits when alert level 1 is introduced but still expect the border to remain closed, the Prime Minister said after signalling an earlier-than-expected exit from the current restrictions. 

"The moment we move to alert level 1 basically all restrictions go - except for the border; the border is what remains and that becomes our single most important line of defence," Jacinda Ardern told reporters on Tuesday. 

"Essentially, level 1 means that we very much feel like we're back to normal," she added, but said contact tracing measures will remain and the Government will keep advocating good public hygiene practices. 

Ardern earlier told The AM Show that over the weekend she asked her office to contact the Ministry of Health and "raise the option" of a move out of alert level 2 as soon as next week. 

No new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in New Zealand for more than a week now, and Ardern said the Government's expectations have been exceeded. 

"We are ahead of where we expected to be at this point. That is why I am so grateful to the efforts of New Zealanders. They're the ones who have put us in the position to be able to be considering earlier a move to level 1."

Kiwis have been living under level 2 since May 14 - more than two weeks ago - and it was only on Friday when gatherings of up to 100 people were permitted for the first time since the lockdown began back in March. 

The Prime Minister said she has always been open to the idea of easing the restrictions early if the number of new cases remained continuously low. 

Ardern highlighted what she said at her press conference last Monday as an example. At the time she said Cabinet would review the level 1 settings on June 8, and agreed to consider the move to level 1 "no later" than June 22. 

"We always gave ourselves that room based on what we might see and we've done that all the way through. If we've seen us make progress, we've always been willing to adjust along the way," she told The AM Show. 

The decision has now been brought forward and Cabinet will decide on moving to level 1 on June 8 - which is next Monday. 

Ardern said ahead of Tuesday's Cabinet meeting she would "bring up that timeline" with her ministers and "share that the Director-General [of Health] shares the view" that the low number of new cases is exceeding expectations.

Why wait another week?

The Prime Minister said despite the consistently low number of new cases, there are still risks, such as asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus - that's people who carry the disease but do not suffer from it or show symptoms.  

"We want to be absolutely certain that when we remove all the restrictions… we want to be absolutely certain before we move to that place." 

Ardern insisted a potential earlier-than-expected shift from level 2 would have nothing to do with pressure from the Deputy Prime Minister or the Black Lives Matter protest over the weekend. 

The protest in Auckland CBD on Monday saw thousands of people march in solidarity with George Floyd, an African-American man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck during an arrest. 

The huge protest  broke the current cap of 100 people at gatherings, which ACT leader David Seymour described as a "slap in the face" of businesses who have followed the rules. 

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters tweeted that the protesters "think they know better than everyone else" and that "if the authorities allow this to occur then we should be at level 1 tomorrow".  

The Prime Minister said she condones the message of the protesters but not the action. 

"They have breached the rules. It was not right. New Zealanders have given up a lot and I need to keep asking the team of 5 million to stay together so we can reach the finish line.

"The Deputy Prime Minister has a view and so do other members around the Cabinet table who I always seek for consensus and balance in these decisions.

"But ultimately, what is driving the decision to consider on 8 June that move to level 1 is the data, the cases, and that has to be what drives our decision-making."