The level 4 lockdown was 32 of the most dramatic days in New Zealand's history. Normal life petrified in suburban homes and designated survivor lists were drawn up in the Beehive. The mood shifted at 1pm each day from initial dread and anxiety, to cautious hope and - finally - relief. Matt Nippert follows the path New Zealand took in the second part of his series reviewing the Pandemic Papers, 2540 pages of recently released cabinet documents and speaking to insiders. He finds that New Zealand could have emerged from isolated bubbles on April 27 into quite a different country.
The Pandemic Papers:
Part 1: 'No Time for a Trial Run' - Inside story of how New Zealand fought the pandemic
Part 2: Days from Disaster - Inside story of how our cobbled-together lockdown nearly came undone
Part 3: 'Eye of the Storm' - The inside story of how NZ faced down Great Depression 2.0
Part 4: 'A Calculated Risk' - Inside the Covid bunker with Ardern and Peters
In downtown Auckland, Jason Paris started worrying from the middle of February. The silver-haired chief executive of telecommunications company Vodafone was hearing word from his sister company in Italy that business as usual - and normal life - was rapidly breaking down as Covid-19 took hold.
"From late February we started to split our essential service workers, our network, IT and customer service agents, across multiple sites in anticipation it was inevitable we'd have a massive Covid outbreak in New Zealand," he says from the vantage point of May.
On March 12, Vodafone in New Zealand engaged in a dry run requiring 1500 staff - all but a small core of key personnel - to work from home.
Paris would prove himself two weeks ahead of an exponentially accelerating curve.
An emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday, March 14, had started the week-long process of closing New Zealand's borders. In Gisborne on the following Monday morning, John Mackay's phone started ringing off the hook.
Mackay's niche scientific testing firm dnature was usually engaged in agribusiness. It served as the country's certifying gatekeeper for manuka honey. But as Covid-19 took hold, the company's DNA-testing process, and stockpile of test chemicals, suddenly become the ultimate must-have for health systems around the globe.
"I had 90 per cent of the country's laboratories ringing that day, or the next day," Mackay said, recalling typically how these conversations involved district health boards and lab staff.
"Do you have any of these reagents?" they asked.
"Sure," said Mackay.
"Can we have everything you've got?'"
Mackay's reagents and testing processes were the same as used to detect coronavirus. His company quickly pivoted from Mycoplasma bovis and the kiwifruit disease PSA and began developing tests for the new virus.
Around this time a senior medical official advising the Government on Covid-19 briefed a group of investors under Chatham House rules - where those present had to keep the information confidential - saying early internal estimates of a sustained outbreak in New Zealand anticipated that 20 per cent of the population would contract the disease. As many as 14,000 would be killed.
These figures were nearly identical to New Zealand's casualties suffered during the each of the two world wars.
Weeks later, as the country buckled at the seams and hurtled only partly prepared into a nationwide lockdown, the connections provided by Mackay appears to have been part of the key in resolving logjams in an ultimately crucial ramping up of testing. The demand from the New Zealand health system meant he had to start rationing his own stock, so he began connecting government procurers with his suppliers.
One senior government figure calls this episode "the drama of the reagents".
Mackay says: "I had heard of there being issues with shortages of test kits. It would have been good if someone had asked the current suppliers of these reagents earlier."
Back in Auckland, Paris would find himself running an essential business during a pandemic lockdown where his revenue collapsed despite demand for data stretching his network to near-breaking point. He found himself the landlord to the nerve centre of all of government efforts to combat the pandemic.
Police commissioner Mike Bush, who likely had been planning to spend the first days of April doing a low-stress victory lap ahead of his long-planned retirement after 42 years in the service, found himself on the first day of lockdown setting up the Covid-19 operations command centre on three levels in Vodafone's suddenly-empty high-rise offices on Lambton Quay.
New Zealand's alert level system, based on Singapore's DORSCON colour-coded alert level system, had been thrown together in less than a week. This frantic work came after news out of the United Kingdom showed central elements of New Zealand's influenza pandemic action plan - the key government contingency document designed to deal with virulent disease outbreaks - was a recipe for disaster if applied to Covid-19.
The old plan moved one-way through four stages as a disease spread, culminating in "mitigation" - effectively throwing in the towel - when prevention efforts, including contact tracing and border and movement restrictions, were abandoned in favour of a single-minded focus on tertiary care at hospitals.
It was this sort of plan that informed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's initial and botched response to Covid and led to Britain's National Health Service quickly become overwhelmed. It was also the plan New Zealand had been working from.
Juliet Gerrard, the prime minister's science adviser, says countries who planned in anticipation of illnesses with relatively high-fatality rates and longer incubation periods like Sars - Taiwan and Singapore, for instance - were achieving far better results in tackling Covid than countries in Europe who had girded themselves against something like influenza.
"We had the benefit of time and could see what was working - and we could see that anyone who had a flu plan wasn't doing very well at all," she says.
Even with this sudden change of plan, the decision to enter lockdown on March 23 was close-run.
The immediate and major risk to the country came from the flood of arrivals in the proceeding few weeks. New Zealanders, sniffing the panic in the wind, elected to return home in a hurry. They came back from countries with virulent outbreaks of their own. No one knew how many were carriers.
Policy to quarantine arrivals had yet to be drafted, and even if plans were in place the numbers arriving at international airports made such measures impossible to implement. Even freeing all prisoners in New Zealand and converting the nations' jailhouses to quarantine centres would only have freed up only enough beds to cope with half of one week of the late March inflow.
Only later, when a collapse in aviation resulted in occasional days of zero international arrivals and thousands of hotel rooms once dedicated to tourists become available for requisitioning, did quarantining became viable and immediately mandatory.
Self-isolation, coupled with the imminent lockdown, was the only option available to cope in early April. It relied on public compliance and necessities - of income, and food, not least - to be delivered while the country was shut down.
Gerrard says it was hard to see how this move could have been made earlier, given the need to prepare and also convince the public it was necessary to ensure buy-in, but it could certainly not have been left any later.
"If you look at our clusters, I think we did everything just in time. If you tried to go earlier, you didn't have the social licence, and if you tried doing it later it would have been too late," she said.
"If we hadn't been watching Italy on TV, it could have been very different."
Dr Bryan Betty, medical director of the college of general practitioners, who has been advising the government on Covid since January, said the rush into lockdown meant more than a year's policy work was jammed into a couple of weeks.
Recalling his thinking from late March, he said: "It was a very close-run thing. At this point, it was my view we literally had 7-10 days to go before the situation got out of control."
Both Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and director general of health Ashley Bloomfield - the central figures in this drama - declined interview requests this week from the Weekend Herald. Their actions here have been reconstructed from Cabinet documents and interviews with those they interacted with during those strange days of March and April.
Each day during lockdown, Bloomfield briefed Arden on daily case numbers at 10am, before sharing the information with her ad hoc Cabinet committee at their 10.30am meetings.
During the first couple of weeks these largely Zoom get-togethers were daily affairs. A little later they shifted to a less-punishing five days a week.
After the initial call, which saw participants effectively act as New Zealand's executive and legislature through the use of emergency powers, Ardern and Bloomfield then strode to the Beehive theatrette to tell the public news that - at first - seemed trending to disaster.
On the first day of lockdown, 78 new confirmed or probable cases of Covid were announced. The number would stay above 70 for most of that week and the next.
On March 31 the state of emergency was extended with a preamble that said "cases of Covid-19 continue to rise" and there was "evidence of some cases of community transmission".
Broadcasts tracking Bloomfield and Adern at these briefings had a smoothness that seemed uncanny: social distancing was seeing camera operators now working by remote control.
Similar precautions were behind weekly notices extending the state of emergency during lockdown - hugely consequential orders granting Cabinet emergency powers - being delivered to Parliament from the National Emergency Management Agency not as signed paper originals, but as digital photographs.
The calm, matter-of-fact delivery of these daily briefings morphed behind the scenes into stark confrontation of the worst that could come.
The playbook for the public service had a line of succession that stopped at State Services commissioner Peter Hughes and his deputy Helene Quilter. But Covid-19 saw contingencies drawn up to cover the possibility of both being simultaneously removed from office by isolation, illness, or worse.
"Mitigation plans are now in place including matters relating to successors to the roles in the event of incumbents being incapacitated due to illness or absence, or otherwise unable to perform their roles," a briefing to Cabinet drafted in the first days of lockdown began.
One Beehive insider said seeing that paper cross his desk on March 31 was a shock: "It was pretty grim when I saw that: Obviously there were fears this could spread quite widely."
The proposed three alternates, signed off by Ardern and Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins, showed national security concerns were now to the fore. The heads of defence, and both New Zealand's spy agencies, were lined up as possible third-in-line designated survivors to run the public service if growing fears of disaster crystallised.
While most public attention was focused on apparent shortages of personal protective equipment, demand for which would skyrocket were there an uncontained outbreak, the key shortage - needed in volume for both a successful suppression campaign, or a rearguard mitigation effort - was capacity for testing and contact tracing.
According to public disclosures of tests conducted, efforts to scale -up the former had been herculean: On March 9, a total of 12 tests had been conducted.
Nine days later, that figure had increased a hundredfold to reach 1209. But this exponential growth in efforts to find Covid carriers - allowing tracing to determine and isolate where it might have spread - was quickly running out of runway.
On April 3, according to internet archives the first day the Ministry of Health started reporting the number of tests stockpiled, 24,886 kits were said to be in hand.
But based on average usage at the time this would not last a fortnight. And medical and scientific advice was urging efforts be ramped up further.
According to one Beehive insider, a week earlier the situation had been even more dire: At one point the country's supply of tests looked likely to last only six days.
This alarming shortage was largely due to a lack of specialised swabs used to collect mucus samples from the back of nasal passages.
The main global supplier of these seemingly innocuous, but quite specialised, bits of fluff was an Italian factory which was struggling to maintain production and cope with surging and desperate domestic demand amid their own catastrophic outbreak.
While the drama of the reagents - another essential competent in testing - had largely been resolved by this point, these swabs now represented the most risky link in a supply chain that seems to have been the difference between New Zealand having a chance of containing Covid or having to live - and die by the thousands - with it.
Fingers were crossed during the first few days of lockdown, as disruptions to the airfreight market posed a serious threat that New Zealand's suppression efforts would grind to a near-halt.
But the aircraft got through.
Over that last weekend of March, in the first few days of lockdown, it is understood tens of thousands of swabs arrived at airports, from Singapore and elsewhere, and orders were placed for nearly 100,000 more.
Planes carrying that order - and more to come in the following weeks - also got through, and the immediate logistics crisis was averted. New Zealand's present stockpile of tests now stands at nearly 200,000.
Parallel efforts to improve contact tracing - a problem whose solution was domestic and largely from better information-sourcing and sharing - would see Dr Ayesha Verrall deliver an urgent audit to the Government on April 10. The public release of Verrall's report was delayed more than a week as furious reforms were made to a system that was found to be over-extended, and the programme rapidly sped and scaled up.
The 1pm announcements saw confirmed and probable cases during lockdown peak at 82 on April 2, but it was not for another week before a trend down became apparent.
On April 9 the Covid ad hoc committee asked officials, for the first time, to think beyond day-to-day crisis management and explore what life beyond level 4 might look like.
A report prepared for Cabinet monitoring weekly cases on April 15 notes that while there were "gaps in the data", there were finally some promising signs.
"New case numbers appear to have flattened out over the past week. The time taken for cases transmitted within New Zealand to double has slowed down. If there was uncontrolled spread we would expect to see a doubling approximately every three days."
A nation could exhale.
While the bones of the alert level system had been sketched out by Gerrard and others, it was only in the days after it was announced the country would move into its highest level of alarm that what it meant in practice would be fleshed out.
Emergency powers granted by the national emergency and formal declaration of an epidemic, meant the ad hoc committee was responsible for not only managing the crisis, but also carrying the entire load day-to-day of government - all over Zoom.
The committee outlawed strikes by workers in essential industries, amended the justice system to prevent the parole board from grinding to a halt under lockdown, formalised contactless delivery protocols, provided emergency accommodation to allow the homeless to self-isolate, and approved a $2.7 billion boost to the rapidly mutating wage subsidy scheme.
This burst of activity all happened in a single meeting on the morning of March 26.
The committee would initially meet daily, including weekends, grappling with issues such as requests from 50 embassies to help thousands of foreigners stranded here, and a similar number of New Zealanders stuck abroad; emergency redrafting of insolvency law and court rules to stall a wall of potential business collapses and deliver justice under lockdown.
Publication of the Royal Commission report into the Christchurch mosque shootings was delayed and the multi-billion-dollar local government debt market that officials said had turned "dysfunctional" was rescued as markets melted down.
These decisions would, in earlier times, have taken weeks if not months to work through the machinery of government.
Several papers note consultation on dramatic law changes had been conducted in haste - in some cases the morning before Cabinet papers were drafted that afternoon - if at all.
There was also the constant refinement of lockdown rules reflecting a policy drafted - by necessity - before it had been fully thought through.
Nowhere was this better illustrated that the categorisation of what qualified as an essential industry.
The Warehouse thought it was essential - even telling the NZX it would remain open under lockdown - until it wasn't.
News media were, until it was decided if they operated on a weekly publishing cycle they weren't.
Butchers were said to be non-essential, but officials made the case they should be on April 1, noting supermarkets alone weren't selling enough pork and farms and freezers were soon to exceed capacity.
"The choice we have is whether we are comfortable with the possibility of poor animal outcomes ... or the disposal of a significant number of pigs in the coming weeks. The numbers of carcasses could mount quickly and there could be consequential environmental issues," officials said.
The travel ban was also subject to case-by-case tweaking at the highest levels and resulted in ministers getting their hands dirty managing Wellington's plumbing. The ad hoc committee gave approval on March 31 for seven German engineers to arrive and self-isolate before conducting emergency repairs on a burst central city sewage line.
From January a stop-gap solution had involved trucking a million litres of toxic sludge each day from the capital to a treatment plant, but concerns were raised an outbreak could spread through the drivers and see Wellington's sewage system collapse and vent, untreated, directly into the sea.
Meetings of this committee would only move to a less-frantic five-day-a-week schedule when tensions began to ease in mid-April. Laws and regulations began to take more than 24 hours to move from drafts to emergency legislation, and affected parties stopped hearing about dramatic changes to their circumstances at the same time as the rest of the country in announcements made live to air to conclude the 1pm briefings.
On April 15 plans were formalised that would see New Zealand exit level 4 lockdown on Monday, April 27 - but the decision to proceed at this point was not yet clear. Ardern presented a paper to the ad hoc committee outlining the hard road ahead.
While there were "encouraging signs", there was no ironcast certainty that declining case numbers meant the outbreak had been suppressed.
"The Covid-19 virus is a challenging adversary. It can be deadly and, if unchecked, we spread it quickly and, at first, invisibly," she said.
Outlining the chaos of the past few months, Ardern noted economic pain was real and growing, but it was unavoidable. Hard border restrictions will need to be maintained for potentially years, and a premature relaxation of restrictions would see them reimposed later with the pain only redoubling.
Success in suppressing the virus during lockdown was reliant on widespread public compliance that was being sorely tested and it would lose efficacy the longer it was maintained, or the more it had to be reimposed.
"There are no easy choices here," she said.
It is understood Bloomfield argued the health corner, pushing for an extension to lockdown, while Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters boxed for the economy, arguing for an early exit. Ardern, it is said, met the two in the middle.
On April 20, a full meeting of Cabinet, in a debate said to be far more deliberative than the near-panic which had lurched the country into lockdown, resolved to move New Zealand out of level 4 on April 27.
Gerrard, the Prime Minister's science adviser, said with daily case numbers now in the single digits, tension began to drain.
"When we were consistently under five, then I breathed out," she says.
Just before midnight on April 26, queues began to form at the drive-through lanes of fast-food restaurants - burgers were a sign of life returning to some sort of new normal.
The next day, the first in 34 New Zealand had not been subject to emergency rule and a nationwide form of home detention, there was a glitch at the 1pm briefing.
While one new positive test was announced, two probable cases had tested negative and the daily change in the number of total cases was officially negative one.
New Zealand, finally, had clocked Covid.