New Zealand could now move to level 1 on Wednesday next week - earlier than expected - as the Prime Minister defends police actions at protests which breached level-2 rules yesterday.
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has called for organisers of the Black Lives Matter protests to be prosecuted and wants to know why New Zealand is not at alert level 1 now if authorities are condoning mass gatherings.
Ardern revealed on Newstalk ZB this morning that Cabinet would now consider, next Monday, an earlier-than-expected move to level 1, with very few restrictions on the Kiwi lifestyle.
She confirmed the country could be at level 1 by Wednesday next week. "We have tended to give people 48 hours."
She said she had always said the move would be "no later" than June 22 assuming the epidemiological evidence supported it.
Thousands of people attended events around the country yesterday - where Covid-19 social distancing rules were clearly broken - over the death of George Floyd in the United States and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Level 2 rules limit gatherings to 100 people, but at least 4000 were estimated to be at the Auckland protest, and several hundred in Wellington.
Ardern answered 'no' when asked by ZB's Mike Hosking if she condoned the activity at the protests yesterday.
Police had been at the protests, she said, and had taken an educate-first approach, followed by warning people.
She said police had played a phenomenal role all the way through Covid-19 and she would leave the on-the-ground decisions to them.
"I absolutely understand the strength of feeling and the sentiment" at the protests; level 2 restrictions were in place for a reason, she said.
The police's graduated approach did not move straight into being heavy-handed, she said.
Asked about Peters' assertion that the protests showed NZ should be at level 1, she said nobody argued in level 4 that if people broke the rules it was a reason to remove the rules.
Ardern said "by and large" the economy was back. People were not fully returning to New Zealand's cities but that was due to personal decisions, rather than any restrictions.
Hosking put to Ardern that retailers and hospitality businesses say they can't make a living at level 2. Ardern said she would like to hear from retailers - some were putting more restrictions in place with their customers than were actually needed.
She recognised that hospitality businesses were still being hit by the restrictions but pointed out New Zealand had opened up more than other countries.
She said she was not giving precedence to the views of epidemiologists and virus experts over economists - she had to listen to both groups. Only Belarus and Taiwan had looser restrictions than New Zealand, she said.
Peters said he was concerned people were flouting Covid-19 guidelines and the event organisers should be prosecuted given New Zealand was still at alert level 2.
"The question is, if you're going to have a protest in Auckland and Wellington, where they don't observe the distancing rules...why aren't we at level 1, or why aren't we prosecuting the people who organised these protests?" Peters told Hosking on Tuesday morning.
"We've got people here flouting our rules," Peters said.
If people continued to flout current rules, then authorities needed to transition the country to alert level 1, he said, noting the country was now at 32 days without a community transmission case.
He also crtiticised epidemiologist Professor David Skegg, who had earlier urged caution about a move down to level 1 and taken aim at people playing politics over the transition.
Peters said it was "all very well to be in an ivory tower, cushioned by employment" when thousands of people were out of jobs and businesses were struggling to survive.
Act leader David Seymour earlier also criticised the protesters and reiterated his call for the country to move to level 1, sentiments later followed by National Party leader Todd Muller and his colleague Judith Collins on social media.
The country's "team of 5 million" had combined to fight Covid-19, Peters said.
"That meant we had to have rules and settings which everyone complies with, and these protests aren't legal - they're not observing the distancing rules.
"If the authorities condone that, 'Why are we not at level 1?' is the question people should be asking."
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He wanted to know how the protests and vigils were allowed to happen "in a critical situation where people need to comply by the rules as set and as agreed by the mass majority of New Zealanders".
Floyd's death was serious and he recognised people sympathised with protests about it - but that was not the point.
"What we've got is people that've used that to break the laws of our country."
Condoning rule breaking was not an acceptable way of going forward when Covid-19 is such a serious matter and had "destroyed" our economy, Peters said.
"Either we have laws and rules that everybody complies with or we don't ... so it has to be a case where the law is asserted and complied with."
There was "no chance" it would not be talked about at Cabinet today, Peters said.
He said there was no need to raise his concerns directly with Police Minister Stuart Nash because "we've all seen what's happened".
On the Hosking show this morning, Peters laughed when pushed about on why he could not action a move when he was in a position of power.
"Stand back and watch," Peters said, adding that Cabinet had access to the very latest information and facts. "Watch what happens."
Seymour said the protests yesterday would be hard to watch for people who had followed the rules and lost their livelihoods.
"There will be people who've lost their jobs, lost their businesses, in some cases even lost their homes under Covid-19 restrictions. There are people trapped overseas and separated from their families while the 'lucky' ones spend 14 days all but incarcerated in hotel rooms.
"These are the law-abiding New Zealanders playing their part in the 'team of 5 millions' effort to beat Covid-19."
Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles also raised concerns about the protesters not wearing masks nor social distancing, and called for anyone who attended the protests to self isolate for the next 14 days.
Before the protests Wiles recognised many people would be wanting to show solidarity with what was happening in the United States, but urged caution.
"Please remember that coming together in large numbers & talking loudly/shouting/singing are a perfect combination for allowing #Covid19 to spread," she said on Twitter.
"Do not go if you feel even slightly unwell. Remember #Covid19 symptoms can be very mild.
"Also, remember that people are infectious before they show any symptoms so please cover your mouth and nose with something, in case that's you."
Black Lives Matter Solidarity Auckland organiser Shalene Williams said they did their best to encourage social distancing, and for people to wear masks.
Throughout the rally were regular calls for people to ensure there was adequate space between them, but due to the sheer number of people it was apparent this was not possible at all times.
Police were asked if they were taking any action towards the protests.
A police spokesperson said they were aware of the events "and were looking to speak with all organisers to remind them of the guidelines for holding gatherings under alert level 2 restrictions".
Police would not confirm how many staff were deployed to monitor the events and said they were not aware of any issues.