WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand said on Monday it had no active cases of COVID-19 for the first time since the novel coronavirus arrived in the country, setting it on course to eliminate the disease, lift social distancing restrictions and open up its economy.
The Pacific island nation is among only a handful of countries that have emerged from the pandemic, as big economies like the United States, Britain, India and Brazil continue to grapple with the spreading virus.
This was largely because of a strict lockdown enforced for nearly seven weeks, in which most businesses were shut and everyone except essential workers had to stay at home.
New Zealand’s Health Ministry said in a statement on Monday that the last person who was being monitored for coronavirus had recovered. It also said there were no new cases of COVID-19 for a 17th consecutive day.
“Having no active cases for the first time since February 28 is certainly a significant mark in our journey but as we’ve previously said, ongoing vigilance against COVID-19 will continue to be essential,” Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said in the statement.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will announce later on Monday if the country intends to lift all remaining social distancing and economic restrictions except for border controls.
A move to national Alert Level 1 from the current Level 2 would mean all social distancing measures and curbs on mass gatherings will be lifted, making New Zealand one of the first industrialised countries to do so.
The country of five million people has pursued an elimination strategy to beat coronavirus, rather than just aiming to contain the disease. But the health ministry has been cautious about declaring victory.
Elimination did not mean eradicating the virus permanently from New Zealand, but eliminating “chains of transmission” for at least 28 consecutive days after the last infected person left isolation, which would be on June 15, the ministry said.
It also required the country to be able to “effectively prevent or contain any future imported cases from overseas”, it said in an emailed statement.
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Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Stephen Coates