On the day a global pandemic was declared our government mulled advice that closing borders long-term would hurt the economy far worse than containing clusters of Covid-19 cases as they arose.

Officials presented a lengthy "keep it out" approach, which New Zealand and many other countries ultimately opted for, as the most economically damaging.

The March 12 all-of-government advice has been released along with hundreds of other documents, and shows how the Covid-19 strategy evolved rapidly amid huge uncertainty about what path to choose, and the costs of those fateful decisions.

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The World Health Organisation had that day declared the global coronavirus crisis a pandemic. New Zealand had five confirmed cases and two probable, a total that hadn't increased for five days.


When the advice was received, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had just announced extended travel restrictions that required travellers to self-isolate for 14 days from northern to all of Italy. Restrictions were in place for South Korean travellers and travel bans for those coming from China and Iran, unless they were New Zealand citizens.

All New Zealand's cases were from overseas travel and ministers were thinking about requiring travellers coming from Europe and the United States to self-isolate on arrival.

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Moving "hard and early" on border restrictions needed to be balanced against the "very significant and enduring negative economic, relationship, and wider consequences of such a decision", stressed the responding advice from officials.

"We are reaching a critical decision point for our border. Implementing border restrictions at a very large scale could make the difference in our long-term economic pathway.

"There is a tipping point, where your decisions at the border will either put New Zealand on a trajectory that: a) manages the public health risk effectively (containing clusters of outbreak in New Zealand), while supporting the economy to bounce back rapidly, or b) isolates New Zealand from the world and results in a shock to our economy, which has deep and long lasting adverse impacts, including on wellbeing."

An accompanying graph predicted by far the worst economic carnage under Option B, "NZ keeps it out".

The officials warned a sudden border closure could "precipitate a culture of fear and reactive behaviours eg panic-buying", and advised ministers to wait for more counsel before deciding whether to restrict US and European travel.


That should cover maintaining essential supplies, protecting relationships with other countries, and an exit strategy, the briefing noted.

"We need clear time frames and rationale for when we could lift the border closure. A short term closure could be justified in certain circumstances, although we do not consider these are presently met. However, those conditions would be likely to last for many months."

Two days later, on March 14, Ardern announced every person entering the country from anywhere in the world would need to self-isolate for 14 days, excluding the Pacific.

On March 19, and with 28 known cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, our borders were closed to everyone but NZ citizens and residents. Australia did the same, and much of the world's borders have since shut indefinitely.

Ardern and her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison this week agreed to implement a "safe travel zone" between the countries as soon as possible, which could be extended to Pacific Island countries. However, Ardern has indicated the border could remain shut to many other nations until a vaccine is developed and widely available.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson will deliver the Budget this Thursday, amid an economic outlook he says is "sobering" and reflective of a one-in-100-year shock.


In April, more than 1000 people a day went on to a main benefit and 184,404 people were on a Jobseeker benefit at the end of the month - a jump of 32,600 in four weeks.

The true impact of Covid-19 is yet to be seen in official statistics, partly because of the wage subsidy scheme - which covers a 12-week period and more than 1.7 million Kiwis, 60 per cent of the workforce. Liquidators expect a surge in the number of businesses failing in the coming months, once that subsidy and the "hibernation" of level four and three end.