In mid-January a small team in Wellington, buried deep in the bowels of the public service, were the only people in New Zealand really interested in 2019-nCoV. Two months later, the virus was a globe-consuming pandemic that had killed more than 100,000, made millions more unemployed, and stopped entire nations in their tracks. Matt Nippert pieces together 2540 pages of recently released official documentation, and interviews with government insiders, to report on how late-night cabinet teleconferences, rushed missteps - and no small amount of good fortune - saw New Zealand locked down and now on the cusp of an unexpected victory in the war against Covid-19.
The Pandemic Papers:
The first time Covid-19 crossed the Cabinet desk on the 10th level of the Beehive was largely pro-forma, and on the margins of the agenda. Small teams within both health and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had kept a watching brief from mid-January as a respiratory disease then called 2019-nCoV emerged from wet markets in Wuhan and began wreaking havoc in local hospitals.
At this point there were fewer than 1000 confirmed cases worldwide, all in China and largely in Hubei, but Covid-19's rapid spread from late December led the Chinese government to lock down the entire province of 58 million as a precaution from January 23.
That same day, the Ministry of Health assembled an incident response team to more formally monitor the situation from Wellington. Its officials drafted an order for Health Minister David Clark to bring along to the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, January 28, to add the disease to a register recording infectious diseases worth keeping an eye on.
That register reads like the inventory of a nightmare plague warehouse, including scares of yore such as mad cow disease, measles, leprosy and the more recent near-pandemic acronyms Mers and Sars. To this was added "novel coronavirus capable of causing severe respiratory illness".
But, not to worry, officials said: "The risk of spread to New Zealand is low".
This cautiously optimistic assessment would not survive the week.
At 8pm on February 1, the Saturday before Waitangi Day, a highly unusual and urgent emergency Cabinet meeting took place by phone. It heard of alarming new numbers on the virus's spread. Cases in China had increased tenfold in the previous seven days, leading the World Health Organisation to ratchet up its alert klaxon to "global emergency".
That late-night conference call saw a handful of ministers - chiefly Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, her deputy and Foreign Minister Winston Peters, and Finance Minister Grant Robertson - tasked with getting advice from Director-General of Health, and soon to be the most famous doctor in New Zealand, Ashley Bloomfield.
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"This is a rapidly changing situation with a high degree of uncertainty," Bloomfield wrote in his briefing the following day, a Sunday.
Every province in China had now reported cases, Bloomfield's briefing said, and it had already spread - albeit in low numbers - to a handful of other countries. There was a likelihood of asymptomatic spreaders, meaning reported infections were almost certainly understating the true growth in case numbers. One in five of those who contracted the virus required hospitalisation. This was clearly not the flu.
Bloomfield urged the immediate expansion of a limited ban on travel to New Zealand from not only those who had visited Wuhan but any travellers from mainland China. It was the same policy move Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had implemented the night before.
The crisis was on. Multiple insiders told the Weekend Herald this marked the moment when "things started to go crazy" and concerns and decision-making at the highest level stepped up in tempo to levels never before seen.
That emergency out-of-office Cabinet teleconference - the first such remote crisis meeting required this term - would be repeated many times in the coming weeks as the Covid waves began lapping at our shores with increasing intensity.
That briefing, and the decision made hours later by that handful of senior ministers who would come to increasingly run the country from their phones, resulted in the first of many dramatic decisions made in haste: New Zealand abruptly closed borders between New Zealand and China in order to delay - not prevent - the spread of the virus here.
Ardern, in Kaikohe on the way to Waitangi, announced the decision late on Sunday in order to allow diplomats to break the news to Beijing first.
"There was huge nervousness about it - managing the relationship with China not least. That was at the top of my mind at the time," says one insider.
Calls between Ardern and Morrison over that fateful weekend are understood to be at least part of the trigger for this dramatic transition to frantic governance. But it was not a decision made lightly. China was a major tourist market, and the major source of international students for the tertiary and secondary sectors. Both are billion-dollar industries and became the first of many economic casualties of Covid.
The hits, from New Zealand's actions and more generally from the global economy, began to arrive from early February. Officials began reporting on risks to supply chains, particularly fuel, and noted globalised manufacturing networks were highly exposed. Officials noted outbreaks in China caused a Hyundai plant in South Korea to shut down after flows of essential components across the border were suddenly disrupted.
The border closure with China triggered an immediate storm of protest from universities which faced hundreds of millions of dollars in lost fees from tens of thousands of students who were due to arrive to start the term. They lobbied over the next month for exemptions - for student visa holders, then postgraduates students.
Those pleas made it all the way to Cabinet as possible options to ease the policy, but came caveated by officials as not recommended as risks of importing the virus were considered too great.
These concerns, and a flurry of activity from the Ministry of Primary Industries about live rock lobster exports (95 per cent of which went to China on airfreight routes which were collapsing alongside cratering passenger numbers) were major talking points in the Beehive in early February, but receded as the exponential spread of the crisis engulfed sectional concerns.
Treasury, tasked with assessing the likely economic impact of Covid here, came up with three possible scenarios ranging from short-term disruption to global recession. They moved from thinking the best-case was most likely, to the worse-case being probable in a matter of weeks.
The disruption of early moves, and rebuffed protests that they were too harsh, came as New Zealand had yet to record a single confirmed case. But attitudes were hardening at the highest levels that the apparent calm was merely because we weren't looking hard enough.
At the time the decision was made to close the borders with China, local laboratories were limited in their capacity and were only testing a handful of samples each day.
On February 14, Bloomfield argued against border restrictions being relaxed. His briefings said he considered there to be a "high" likelihood Covid had already reached our shores and was beginning to circulate.
While later events would appear to prove Bloomfield's assessment wrong - it was two weeks later before New Zealand recorded its first case, a traveller from Iran and not from local transmission - his precautionary approach won out and perhaps represents a case of officials making the right decision for the wrong reason.
Ardern was again out of the office, this time in Australia, when the earth moved again. On February 27, key ministers were informed of our first case. Confirmation, and a public announcement, came the following day.
Fears now began to crystallise among the wider public. Panic-shopping led to bare shelves at supermarkets where piles of toilet paper and hand sanitiser had once been stacked.
Drug-buying agency Pharmac began to get reports of similar activity at chemists - including doctors writing multiple prescriptions for patients to stockpile from different pharmacies - stretching supply chains already shaken by disruptions to airfreight routes and key medicine ingredient factories in China.
In the wake of that first positive test, Cabinet met the following Monday and formally carved out a name for the handful of senior ministers increasingly running the country: "The Ad Hoc Cabinet Committee on the Covid-19 Response".
Events built to a head the following week. By Monday, March 9, case numbers in New Zealand reached five. Italy - where Lombardy had recorded its first case three weeks before but where the death toll was now more than 100 - began rolling out a nationwide lockdown as stresses on their health system became overwhelming.
Outbreaks were swelling across Europe and the United States, and international stock markets began a weeks-long slide with volatility that exceeded the worst spikes of panic seen during the global financial crisis.
In New Zealand, important mass gatherings - Pasifika in Auckland, and a memorial for the victims of the Christchurch mosque shooting - were scheduled for that weekend.
Something had to give.
Treasury officials, amongst the most-cautious branch of the public service, had abandoned business as usual the previous week and were now telling ministers the rapidly developing situation meant they were effectively flying blind.
Decisions on the need to mitigate rapidly worsening economic impacts for which there was no precedent may need to be made with incomplete information.
"By the time it is clear that action is desirable, it may be too late to implement a timely response," officials said.
One Beehive official told the Weekend Herald the crisis resulted in a dramatic change of pace from the traditionally deliberate, tortoise-like rhythm of a public service that preferred inaction over policy that hadn't been scrutinised by committee to ensure it was watertight.
"The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet were reaching deep into the public service at 10am saying 'Cabinet is going to be considering this move in a meeting tomorrow and we'll need a briefing paper in four hours,'" the source said.
"The process for Cabinet papers usually, from drafting to submitting, takes three months."
A senior government figure said the pace was bewildering: "New information was arriving faster than we were able to make decisions, which were quickly being made obsolete."
It was as if test-match cricketers suddenly found themselves playing a T20 super over.
Veteran public servant John Ombler was conscripted to co-ordinate the all of government response to Covid, and one of his first reports to cabinet on March 10 noted the Covid crisis team at the ministry of health was 70-strong, growing, and working seven days a week. He flagged the need to make urgent and hard calls around mass gatherings, border controls and containment efforts.
On March 12, the World Health Organisation concluded the spread of Covid was globally out of control and formally declared a pandemic, triggering an end-game of sorts in Wellington.
At 10pm that night, the ad hoc committee patched into another emergency conference call and heard fears Pasifika risked being a vector transmitting the virus to ill-prepared Pacific Islands.
That night, the festival, which had been due to start in 36 hours and typically attracts more than 200,000 attendees, was cancelled by those ministers. The memorial event in Christchurch faced a similar fate the following day.
Another emergency meeting of the committee scheduled for Saturday morning, March 14, was tasked with looking at wider border closures. The weight of the decision to come weighed heavily on all in attendance.
Until this point, the borders had been managed by sorting countries into lists - effectively green and red, depending on whether outbreaks were present. The banned list had been growing rapidly, requiring new entries to be transmitted to immigration authorities and airlines. The machinery filtering decisions down was beginning to seize.
And now key allies and markets - particularly Europe and the United States - were dealing with outbreaks of their own. Health officials recommended putting the entire world - outside Australia and the Pacific - into a category requiring self-isolation.
Government figures were obsessing over the numbers. At this stage there were only five confirmed cases, but there was a keen awareness this number was likely understated and there was a vivid counterfactual happening in graveyards and ICU wards in major cities around the world.
"You're not making a decision on five cases, you're making a decision on what's about to happen. And you know it's about to happen, because it's happened everywhere else on earth," one senior government figure told the Weekend Herald.
The consequences of such a move were not missed by officials: "It does not prohibit travel, it only asks travellers to self-isolate on arrival. However, it will have similar effects to a border closure in practice as it acts as a deterrent for visitors, who make up the vast majority of travellers."
Dramatically negative consequences on tourism, airlines and logistics networks were flagged as many international air routes were expected to rapidly diminish before being cancelled entirely.
But ministers agreed to the move, and foreign governments and airlines were given 60 minutes' notice before it was publicly announced New Zealand was - to all intents and purposes - closed to the world.
Harder measures - a formal travel ban - encountered push-back by ministers concerned about stranding visiting tourists (30,000 from Europe alone were in-country at the time), and stopping tens of thousands of New Zealanders abroad from getting home.
A compromise of sorts was reached, at least in part caused by the logistical difficulties in abruptly shutting down international travel entirely, whereby a short window of commercial traffic was held open to allow repatriation on commercial flights.
After reports of visitors not following self-isolation guidelines, and concerns the Pacific carve-out would create a back-door transmission route to the Islands, the policy was hardened and amended five days later to a blanket travel ban and the window closed. Given the pace of policy-making, the Government was not wrong for long.
While the window to the world was shut on March 19, work on barricading the doors inside New Zealand was also by now well in-train.
A Cabinet memo prepared by health and science advisers on Friday, March 20, used the most dramatic language yet in discussing daily new case numbers that had moved from five the previous week to now be more than two dozen.
"Iran and Italy show dramatically what happens when action is taken too late. Their health systems are overwhelmed which is leading to alarming fatality rates," the briefing paper said.
The experts said while community transmission had yet to be detected, it was likely to be occurring in New Zealand.
"If community transmission becomes widespread we will have lost the opportunity gained by closing the border. International advice is that for each case we may be missing nine."
The risk of inciting public alarm was considered, and advice given to be open about the dramatic actions being contemplated. That horse, with stockpiling and dramatically reduced school attendance in the community, had already bolted.
"Increasing panic is likely regardless, and without such information, communities are more likely to respond and act on rumours than official advice."
Outlining the new alert level system, the experts said: "New Zealand has a stark choice."
This phrase would be repeated by Ardern herself in an address to the nation three days later announcing on Monday, March 23, that in order to avoid the possibility of tens of thousands of deaths, New Zealand would immediately move into alert level 3, and lockdown completely on Thursday, March 26.
Cabinet had met earlier that Monday - a rare occasion during the crisis where the usual Monday timeslot was the arena for action. Meeting participants said the mood was sombre.
Briefings for that meeting noted "New Zealand is at a tipping point," and a move to level 4 was "inevitable"; the timing was just a question of how quickly plans could be put together. The eventual decision, extraordinarily, required policy to be prepared after the decision was made.
The move to level 4 represented an all-in effort to try to avoid the fates of Milan, London and New York. There were no other cards left to play.
One senior government figure, unsure if the lockdown had come too late, and if it would even work, recalled breaking down after Ardern's announcement that day.
"I cried with relief at that decision, if I'm being honest," he said. "It was probably the longest week of my life."
Another insider said while lockdown was the best - and only - option to take, it was far from a magic bullet. All advice they'd seen suggested it would only serve to slow the spread.
According to interviews with participants, the following two days were a blur.
Parliament was convened, the first-ever national state of emergency across the whole country was declared, then the House was suspended and replaced by a freshly-minted Epidemic Response Committee that could initially meet only via videoconference.
The day before lockdown, the ad hoc committee of ministers was still cobbling together a quarantine policy, having scraped together 3300 suddenly-empty hotel rooms and 1400 campervans for use by arrivals unable to self-isolate or who showed symptoms of sickness.
Briefing documents from this day include many spelling and grammar mistakes and show the sense of urgency, verging on panic, that had taken hold.
Flights carrying 2900 passengers, almost all returning New Zealanders, were due to land the next day, starting from 2.30am. Customs and immigration officials were getting a crash-course on case management, but were told they would have to effectively make it up as they went along.
"The rapid implementation of the approach will entail some risks given the speed, and key personal [sic] and resourcing constraints. The staggered approach of flights throughout the 26[th] will enable ongoing improvement and refinement of processing of passengers throughout the day," the official advice read.
"We do not expect the first few arrivals will be a seamless experience given there is no time for a trial run."
New Zealand woke up on March 26 to the empty streets and eerie silence of the first day of lockdown.
The day before, New Zealand had reported 50 new confirmed cases of Covid-19.
The last planes home had already begun arriving.
And a nation held its breath.