New Zealand eases virus controls as it seeks elimination

The decision means that mass gatherings can proceed without restrictions

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses a press conference on the latest COVID-19 updates in Auckland, New Zealand, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. All remaining virus restrictions will be lifted across much of New Zealand from late Monday, with the exception of the largest city, Auckland, which will continue to have some restrictions for at least another 16 days. (Greg Bowker/NZ Herald via AP)
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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern moved most of the country to the lowest virus alert setting on Monday and said it was edging towards eliminating Covid-19.

Ms Ardern announced that New Zealand would from late Monday move down to virus level one in its four-tier alert system, except for Auckland, where the country's most recent outbreak was reported.

"Our actions collectively have managed to get the virus under control," said Ms Ardern, whose government has been widely praised internationally for its coronavirus response.

The decision means that mass gatherings, such as the first Bledisloe Cup rugby Test between the All Blacks and Australia in Wellington on October 11, can proceed without restrictions.

New Zealand has recorded only 25 deaths in a population of about five million, with no new cases reported on Monday.

The virus was believed to have been eradicated at one point, with the country enjoying 102 days without community transmission after a strict national lockdown that ran from late March until late May.

Ms Ardern said elimination was still New Zealand's target.

"Analysis completed for the Ministry of Health suggests that by the end of this month, there is still a 50-50 chance of having eliminated Covid once again," she said.

But she said Auckland "needs more time" to deal with a cluster of infections that was detected last month in the city of 1.5 million people.

"This was the centre of the outbreak and that's why caution is required here," she said.

The origin of the Auckland cluster remains unknown, but health authorities say it is not the same strain of the virus experienced earlier this year.

Ms Ardern said extensive testing and effective contract tracing were keeping it contained.

Auckland's alert will move down slightly from 2.5 to two on Wednesday, meaning the maximum number at social gatherings increases from 10 to 100.

The city's virus setting will be reviewed in two weeks, with the possibility it could join the rest of the country at level one on October 7.