VIRUS LATEST
* NZ is one of only nine countries with no active cases
* Alert level 1 started at midnight - no limits on gatherings, no social distancing
* No active cases, 17 days of no new cases - 102 days after first case reported
* NZ has had 1504 confirmed and probable cases, with 22 deaths
* 33 days at alert level 4, 16 days at level 3, 26 days at level 2
* Strict border measures remain for foreseeable future

New Zealand is focusing on Australia and a transtasman travel bubble ahead of the Pacific Islands, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said today.

And she has taken a swipe at Air New Zealand over the way the airline has handled the non-refunding of airfares to customers.

Despite mounting pressure to open the borders to countries such as the Cook Islands and Niue - both Covid-free, like New Zealand - Ardern told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking today that the Government was focusing on a transtasman bubble.

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"We are focusing on Australia first."

There were a "huge number" of reasons for this - "not least tourism not going one way for us, but also New Zealand's closer economic relationship with Australia. We put that in a special category".

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New Zealand was working on a framework with Australia that would then apply to the Pacific Islands as well.

New Zealand was looking at cases in those countries, as well as any cases of community transmisson and testing levels.

New Zealand will move to alert level 1 - and a return to mostly normal lives - from midnight tonight. The announcement comes just two hours after health officials confirmed that the country now has no active Covid-19 cases.

Fiji, for example, did not have any more cases but New Zealand had to be sure its testing regimes were rigorous. "Their testing has been lower."

There was no timeframe on a transtasman bubble "because Covid hasn't had a timeframe".

"Essentially we need to make sure Australia is in a similar position as us. They aren't yet. New South Wales, Victoria... Victoria in particular are still seeing cases coming through.

"It will be a joint decision but we will set some parameters. We need to set up a framework and the Pacific are interested now as well. We need a framework that we can apply more broadly."

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The requirements were not necessarily zero cases - the framework needed to accommodate the ongoing management of cases. If New Zealand had five cases at the border, for example, we would not want that counting against us - those cases would need to be quarantined.

"It's not a case of New Zealand sitting here and saying no to Australia. Australia are saying they are not ready yet either."

It was a matter for Australia whether a travel bubble with New Zealand was country-wide or individual states.

On the subject of Air New Zealand airfares not being refunded for cancelled flights, she said: "I do think Air New Zealand could have handled it better."

"We want to make sure customers are looked after and that means communication could most certainly have been vastly improved."

She acknowledged Air New Zealand's comments that they would be in a difficult financial position if they refunded all non-flexible fares. Instead the airline has given credits to many customers.

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"They have also apologised for some of the management of the issue as well."

The government would look at whether it needed to bring consumer legislation in line with EU and US regulations, but this would not be retrospective.

She said she had no regrets of the past 10 weeks. "I would like to think the hard work of all New Zealanders apeak for themselves. We have done really well as a nation... we are not done yet."

She said the same amount of rigour that the country had spent on the health response would now be applied to the economy.

Meanwhile, Ardern told Hosking that a KiwiRail electrification project that had gone to offshore companies - to the anger of local firms Fletcher and Downer - would still be putting money in Kiwi workers' pockets.

One of the companies that had won the contract, McConnell Dowell, had been in New Zealand for 50 years. "It's going to be Kiwis on the job."

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"Mike, you would be the first to annihilate me... we have an obligation to follow a proper tender process. We also have obligations to make sure we follow international trade obligations."

On the question of whether an ex-Russian spy - who was poisoned along with his daughter in Britain - was now in New Zealand, she said: "Whilst I am not going to confirm nor deny, I am going to say you shouldn't believe everything you read."

EARLIER

New Zealanders wake this morning to a country with no active Covid-19 cases, no virus transmission, and the freedom to hug, dance and do as they please for the first time in 75 days.

Alert level 1 - essentially normal life with no distancing requirements or limits on gatherings - officially began at midnight, following the 17th straight day of no new Covid-19 cases and the recovery of the country's final active case.

But strict border measures remain as the Government considers allowing more overseas arrivals including Australians, international students and foreign essential workers.

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Auckland Transport is reminding everyone that public transport is "back to normal" today and road authorities say there is no need for physical distancing.

But cash is still not being accepted at this stage and only those with a HOP card can travel - as it is also helpful in contact-tracing if needed.

Anyone feeling sick is also urged to stay off public transport.

The ongoing global pandemic meant that more cases would inevitably arise, but being Covid-free was an achievement that should be celebrated, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

"I did a little dance," she said yesterday when asked how she reacted to the news of no active cases.

"I showed Neve. She was caught a little by surprise but she joined in having absolutely no idea why I was dancing around the lounge, but enjoying it nonetheless."

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READ MORE:
Covid 19 coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern reveals when NZ will move to alert level 1
Covid 19 coronavirus: Level 1 - it's now Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's decision today
Covid 19 coronavirus: Zero! Bring on level 1 - NZ now Covid-free
Covid 19 coronavirus: New Zealand officially virus free as global cases pass 7 million mark

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield played down his dancing abilities: "I did allow myself a broad smile."

It has been 102 days since the first Covid-19 was reported in New Zealand, which now joins an elite list of nine countries - including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Eritrea and Holy See - with no active cases.

But their Covid experiences have been far less intense, with total cases in those countries ranging from eight to 324; New Zealand has had 1504 confirmed or probable cases and 22 deaths.

It comes as the number of cases worldwide exceeds seven million, while the global death toll tops 400,000.

National Party leader Todd Muller said the move to level 1 will be met with a "huge amount of collective satisfaction of a job well done" - though it should have happened last week.

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He said he will now be more comfortable shaking people's hands.

"I've constantly had to stop and do the elbow-bump - somewhat unnatural. To be able to get closer and connect with people, I think that will be awesome."

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said moving to level 1 was a "real achievement", and a statement that Covid-19 had been eliminated.

But it was only the first battle in a long-term war against the virus, he added.

"This risk will rise again in New Zealand as we gradually increase the numbers of incoming travellers. It will also rise during the coming winter when coronaviruses are more transmissible."

About 10,000 people have come to New Zealand since a blanket quarantine was imposed from April 10, and not a single worker involved with managing them has tested positive.

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From the end of the week, everyone arriving at the border will be tested twice for Covid-19 within 14 days of arriving.

And surveillance testing at the border - which has found one positive test in an asymptomatic worker - will continue.

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said he allowed himself a 'broad smile' when he found out there were no active cases in New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said he allowed himself a 'broad smile' when he found out there were no active cases in New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Bloomfield also wants to test and isolate all air crew flying in from Los Angeles, because their movements are not as restricted as air crew flying in from Asia.

These measures will be constantly monitored as the Government looks at bringing back international students, opening borders with Australia, and welcoming essential workers from overseas.

There is no timeline yet for foreign students or Australians, but hundreds of essential workers - including Avatar film workers - have already been allowed entry.

Bloomfield said there was no sign that anyone was at risk at the QT Hotel in Wellington, where Avatar workers are self-isolating.

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They had paid for their stay and the Health Ministry was looking at strengthening such private arrangements, he added.

Ardern didn't rule out the possibility of moving back up alert levels, but added that the lockdown had remained as long as it did to prevent future yoyo-ing between levels.

"We don't just want to move to level 1. We want to stay there."

Contact-tracing will remain important, and Ardern asked businesses to use QR codes so people could keep a digital diary of their movements in the Covid Tracer app.

She urged Kiwis to "buy, play and experience New Zealand-made", adding that public servants should return to their workplaces to stimulate activity in the country's CBDs.

A Reserve Bank analysis shows the economy under level 1 is expected to be operating at 3.8 per cent below normal levels. Under level 2, it was 8.8 per cent below normal, 19 per cent under level 3 and 37 per cent under level 4.

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The wage subsidy is set to be extended from tomorrow but with tighter criteria.

It has so far paid out $11 billion to 1.66 million workers - almost two-thirds of the country's workers.

Level 1 should see a return to work, but 910,000 workers are still estimated to qualify for the wage subsidy extension - which will cost $3.9 billion.