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New Zealand has moved today to a slightly less-restrictive way of living with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declaring the coronavirus "currently eliminated" - and the country's efforts now the focus of international attention.

The country moved to level 3 at 11.59pm on Monday, easing some of the restrictions of the level-4 living of the past four-and-a-half weeks - including another 400,000 Kiwis returning to work and the lifting of fast-food restrictions. People were already lining up at McDonald's drive-thrus early on Tuesday.

Long queues outside McDonald’s Mangere as the restaurant reopens under Level 3. Video / Michael Craig

New Zealand's main centres are buzzing for the first time in almost five weeks. Timesaver Traffic's Rebecca Apolosi says it's clearly visible on Auckland roads.

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"Overlooking Spaghetti Junction, I can see plenty of cars coming and going in all directions. The Southern Motorway is the most active, heading south. There's the usual trucks, buses and courier vehicles that have been operating as normal under alert level 4.

"However, there's plenty of tradie vans and utes whizzing past as well this morning."

Motorists have returned to Auckland's Southern Motorway as 400,000 New Zealanders return to work after a month of level 4 restrictions. Video / Will Trafford

With just 270 active Covid cases in the country, New Zealand is now the focus of headlines in the UK, USA and Australia.

The Daily Telegraph in the UK reported New Zealand being on the verge of a "brilliant victory" and Australia's mass-market news.com website said New Zealand had won a major battle. The New York Times and Washington Post have both featured articles on how New Zealand is combating the threat.

But Ardern warned Kiwis they needed to do everything they could to prevent a second wave of infection. "We must make sure that we do not let the virus run away on us again and cause a new wave of cases and deaths."

To do this, Ardern said New Zealanders must "hunt down the last few cases of the virus".

Ardern appeared on the Mike Hosking Breakfast show on Newstalk ZB this morning, seven hours after we moved into level 3, to speak on a range of subjects - including the wage subsidy scheme and the impact on businesses.

Ardern said she had "looked out for the welfare" of Labour MP Deborah Russell following the MP's controversial comments about businesses last week.

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"My job is to make sure she knows she's done something wrong and when she does, she is supported. I don't think it's mutually exclusive to be concerned about the welfare of someone in my team.

"Of course, she knows she did something wrong."

Bay of Plenty fisherman Sean Bracefield casts into the sunrise this morning. Fisherman were back into it long before the sun came up on Papamoa Beach today. Photo / Alan Gibson
Bay of Plenty fisherman Sean Bracefield casts into the sunrise this morning. Fisherman were back into it long before the sun came up on Papamoa Beach today. Photo / Alan Gibson

Russell last week backtracked on her comments regarding small businesses' own responsibility for being in trouble in the pandemic.

Russell made headlines when she said: "We are seeing a number of small businesses really struggling, after only a few weeks in a pretty bad situation, which must speak to the strength of those small businesses going into this lockdown."

After a public backlash, Russell apologised and acknowledged her comments were hurtful.

Ardern said Russell knew she had done wrong, and the Prime Miniter herself had said so publicly.

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On the wage subsidy scheme, Ardern acknowledged there might be a "small number" of businesses potentially rorting the scheme, but they would be found.

"We have an audit function in place. I think the majority of New Zealanders are doing the right thing."

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New Zealand will stay in level 3 for at least another two weeks.

From today, people can get takeaways for dinner and to-go coffees from their favourite café, as long as there is no person-to-person contact.

Kiwis will also be able to fish and surf under level 3, and Ardern estimated that some 400,000 people will return to work today.

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When asked by Hosking if we were still being too conservative, Ardern said: "We are doing what's right for New Zealand".

"I have a lot of faith in New Zealanders.

"I was speaking to someone in politics in Australia, and they were saying they would have been better off shutting retail. They would have looked after their workers better in shutting."

Ardern said the Government's goal was to keep people in work and "I think we have largely done that".

As New Zealand wakes up under Alert Level 3, PM Jacinda Ardern talks to Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking about Covid-19 checkpoints, Deborah Russell, and the wage subsidy scheme. Audio / Newstalk ZB

Ardern yesterday urged people to remain vigilant as the restrictions eased.

Yesterday was the ninth day in a row where the number of new cases was in single digits.

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There were just five new cases yesterday, taking the total number to 1469.

With 1180 recoveries so far, that means there are just 270 active cases across the country.

In other words, 80 per cent of all confirmed and probable cases have recovered.

"I would say we have achieved, through alert level 4, the position we wanted to be in so that we could now start to move down alert levels," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said yesterday.

Ardern was equally as optimistic.

"It's been nearly five weeks living and working in ways that just two months ago would have seemed like fiction," she told media.

"But we did. And we did it together."

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She confirmed New Zealand has no widespread community transmission – "we have won that battle".

And there is even more good news for New Zealand as it starts its slow journey back to pre-Covid-19 life.

Construction resumes at alert level 3, workers wait for access to building site, Britomart. Photo / Michael Craig
Construction resumes at alert level 3, workers wait for access to building site, Britomart. Photo / Michael Craig

Covid-19 has currently been eliminated.

Asked about the low number of new cases, Bloomfield said: "That does give us confidence that we have achieved our goal of elimination."

However, he pointed out that elimination never meant getting new cases to zero – "but it does mean we know where our cases are coming from".

Elimination is different from eradication – whereby the virus is completely stamped out in New Zealand.

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By contrast, elimination means the reduction of new Covid-19 cases to either zero, or a very low defined rate.

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Asked if New Zealand had eliminated Covid-19, Ardern replied it "currently" had.

But she pointed out that the next challenge for the Government was Covid-19's tail.

"Elimination means we may well reach zero, but we may well then have small numbers of cases coming up again," she told media this afternoon.

"That doesn't mean we have failed, it just means that we're in the position to have that zero-tolerance approach to have very aggressive management of those cases and keep those numbers low."

But the fight is not over yet, Ardern said.

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The Government's focus is now on preventing a second wave of infection in New Zealand.

She believes this can be achieved, but it will require focusing a lot of attention on finding all current cases, and preventing any spread.

She said this would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

But Ardern is confident that needle can be found through the Government's "significantly scaled up" contact tracing ability.

She said the Ministry of Health has the ability to make as many as 10,000 calls a day, if required.

If fact, Bloomfield said he was "very confident" that his ministry has reached the gold standard when it comes to its contact-tracing abilities.

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As the Government does its part, Ardern called on New Zealanders the "team of five million" – to do theirs.

"Record where you have been, who you've been with and that will make all our jobs easier."

But the optimism of the continued number of new cases was tinged in some sadness yesterday, as Bloomfield revealed another Covid-19-related death – a woman in her 90s.

She was part of the St Margaret's Hospital cluster in Auckland and is the 19th person to die from Covid-19 in New Zealand.

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