WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged New Zealanders on Tuesday to reduce contacts to a bare minimum to help fight the coronavirus, as the country prepared for a one-month lockdown.
New Zealand’s cases of the coronavirus crossed the 100 mark this week as the government imposed self-isolation for everyone, with all non-essential services, schools and offices to be shut for a month from midnight on Wednesday.
New Zealand has fewer infections than many other countries but Ardern’s government wants to move fast to halt the spread. It was one of the first to force all arriving travellers into self-isolation and to ban indoor and outdoor gatherings.
Cases in neighbouring Australia have soared to 1,886 but it has yet to announce a nationwide lockdown.
“Simplest thing is to stay at home ... that’s how we will save lives,” Ardern told a news conference at parliament.
“The underlying principle of an alert level 4 is to reduce contact between people to the bare minimum,” she said.
Parliament will sit on Wednesday to impose the state of emergency and lockdown, she said.
The prime minister said the lockdown would give the country of about 5 million people a good chance of beating the virus but it would only work if everyone followed the restrictions.
New Zealand has a total of 155 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus, with four local transmission cases. It has had no deaths.
Under the lockdown, people can go out for a walk or take their children out but they have to keep a distance of 2 metres from others. They can also go to supermarkets.
On Tuesday, office staff were preparing to work from home while students moved out of their hostels and cafes shut down.
Domestic airports and other regional transport services were choked as people headed home before the lockdown.
In the capital of Wellington, ferry services going from the North Island to the South Island were packed, as were supermarkets with people stocking up with food despite government assurances the country will be well supplied.
Retail banks agreed to offer a six-month principal and interest payment holiday for mortgage holders and small business customers, the finance minister, Grant Robertson, said.
“A six-month mortgage holiday for people whose incomes have been affected by COVID-19 will mean people won’t lose their homes as a result of the economic disruption caused by this virus,” Robertson said.
The government and banks would also implement a NZ$6.25 billion ($3.62 billion) business finance guarantee scheme for small and medium-sized businesses, he said.
The scheme will include a limit of NZ$500,000 per loan and will apply to firms with a turnover of between NZ$250,000 and NZ$80 million per annum.
The government will carry 80% of the credit risk, with the other 20% to be carried by the banks, Robertson said.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand (RBNZ) had decided to reduce banks’ core funding ratios to 50% from 75%, further helping banks make credit available.
Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Mike Collett-White, Robert Birsel