Thousands of New Zealanders needing non-urgent surgery, such as hip or knee replacements, will have to wait until our country's Covid-19 lockdown is over or likely longer.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern lifted New Zealand's emergency alert level to 3 yesterday, with forewarning of it moving to level 4, effective midnight Wednesday. The lockdown will last at least month - possibly longer, Ardern said.

An Auckland District Health Board (DHB) spokesperson said this meant only essential healthcare services – in hospitals, general practice, pharmacy, and elsewhere in the community - would remain open.

"All other services will be shut down nationally. This will mean that almost all planned care, including surgery will be postponed."

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The DHB spokesperson said from a public health perspective, this was the right decision.

"It allows us the very best opportunity to stop and contain the spread of Covid-19 in Aotearoa. If we all do our bit, unite against Covid-19 and follow official advice we have the best chance of protecting ourselves and our loved ones."

Auckland DHB was working with the Ministry of Health and other agencies to implement the changes we need to make to protect our communities, the spokesperson said.

"Our message to patients is please come to your appointment unless we contact you directly to reschedule it."

In Southland, consultations via telehealth, which was where clinicians use phone or video links to treat people in their own homes, was being used where possible.

Southern DHB chief executive Chris Fleming said: "In cases where it is essential to see a clinician, we will contact patients to arrange the best option for their treatment."

All hospitals would be accessible through one entrance only, and visitors would only be allowed to enter hospitals on compassionate grounds, Fleming said.

The private sector was also cancelling elective operations, with Dunedin's Mercy Hospital admitting its final patients today and planning to have discharged all patients by Thursday.

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"That will create capacity for what we may be asked to do by the public system," the private hospital's chief executive Richard Whitney said.

"The nature of that support is yet to be finalised, but it could be a combination of undertaking non-discretionary surgery that the DHB will not be well situated to do, such as cancers, or it could be freeing up some staff to aid the workforce, or doing some acute patients such as fractures."

While not knowing what role Mercy might play, stopping electives freed up capacity for whatever might happen, Whitney said.

A Ministry of Health spokeswoman said the extent to which usual services can continue to be delivered through hospitals and clinics will depend on the number of patients being tested positive for Covid-19 who need hospital-level care.

"DHBs are advising patients of deferrals and the appropriate steps to take should the patient's condition worsen.

"The Ministry will work with DHBs to develop recovery plans and implement strategies to address any increased wait lists due to the Covid-19 outbreak."

The spokeswoman said DHBs were working to balance ongoing service delivery with steps to prepare for a potential increase of patients due to the virus.

"Emergency departments will continue to operate to manage acute demand and acute patients will be treated according to acuity."

As of this afternoon, the number of confirmed and probable coronavirus cases in New Zealand stood at 155.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

If you have health-related concerns about novel coronavirus (Covid-19), call the dedicated Healthline 0800 number 0800 358 5453. The line is staffed by nurses, paramedics and health advisers. Interpreters are available.