Matt Nippert continues his Pandemic Papers series, sitting down in the Beehive with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her deputy in government Winston Peters to chronicle the frenetic months inside the bunker as New Zealand battled Covid and now, gingerly, plots a future for which no one had planned.
The previous year had been bookended by the handling of horrific mass casualty calamities - one from a shooting at two Christchurch mosques, the other from an erupting volcano in the Bay of Plenty - and Jacinda Ardern was in January enjoying a quiet summer break.
BBC news was on - "I always follow international news, even if I might switch off a little from the domestic during the summer," the Prime Minister says - and events in Wuhan were gathering steam, but this boiler was yet to blow.
What was then known as a novel coronavirus had emerged from a wet market in China and was causing chaos in local ICU wards. The situation went critical in a matter of weeks, moving during the month from something the Chinese government sought to downplay to, on January 23, requiring the unprecedented lockdown of the entire Hubei province to contain its spread.
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
Turning to fiance Clarke Gayford, Ardern remarked on the extreme strangeness of the equivalent of a mid-size country - Wuhan and other cities in the province subject to lockdown had a combined population of 57 million - being entirely cut off from the world and all its residents subjected to effective house arrest.
"That is remarkable," Ardern recalls saying to Gayford. "And how extraordinary it would be if that was ever something that was to happen anywhere else?"
Winston Peters, the craggy-faced veteran whose New Zealand First party's results at the 2017 election had secured a role in the coalition government and himself the offices of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, was also watching the same news - but with a cynical eye.
"I was watching international media and the WHO's comments about what they were facing, and the concern at that time was whether we were hearing all the facts," he says.
"The biggest concern was knowing that three and a half million people had passed through Wuhan at the same time this was happening. When I saw that mentioned, that looked massive. How far have they travelled from there?" Peters recalls asking.
The pandemic papers: Inside story of how NZ fought Covid 19
The pandemic papers: The inside story of how our cobbled together lockdown nearly came undone
The pandemic papers: The inside story of how NZ faced down Great Depression 2.0
"The answer is it was already going international."
Ardern and Peters are talking to the Weekend Herald from their Beehive offices in the relative calm of June. Life has not returned to normal, or even a new normal.
Ardern has not been to her home in Auckland's Mt Eden since early March, and is still effectively based full-time with her family at Premier House. The short walk to and from her office on the ninth floor of the Beehive was often the only time during lockdown she spent outside.
Peters, by contrast, was at home for altogether far too long, having governed remotely while spending lockdown in isolation in Northland.
Soon after those BBC reports, the crisis for New Zealand began in earnest. On February 2, Cabinet made the most consequential decision of its term to date - to be repeatedly eclipsed in magnitude several times in the coming weeks - to effectively close the border with China.
Ardern acknowledges the Saturday Cabinet conference call was unusual - she says at that point convening on weekends, or remotely, had previously been required only a "handful of times" - and at the time the decision was hugely controversial as it cut New Zealand off from a key tourism and education market.
"We felt the full magnitude of that," she says.
"That felt huge. I mean, that was enormous: We were closing the border [to China] and stopping people who usually have a free flow of movement and that has a significant economic impact for us."
Peters felt similarly, also knowing full well the move would not be viewed with favour by Beijing.
"That was a tough decision, but you have to prepare for the worst and hope that it is not what you are going to have to face. If you prepare for the worst, then your preparations may be adequate."
The announcement of the ban was made the following day, but first Peters had to break the news to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
Asked if the move, following similar measures from Australia and the United States, was well received, Peters says: "It was not. It is no good news when you ring someone to say [you're closing the borders]. But we had to and I did get the view at the end of the conversation that he did understand why, in terms of protecting our population, we had to act."
The move was likely to have only served to delay the inevitable.
With Covid-19, as it was by now known, spreading globally country-specific travel restrictions became unmanageable and, worse, lost efficacy. And, so, it was on a plane from Tehran - where travel was at that time still allowed - that our first case arrived and was confirmed on February 28.
Ardern was in Australia and was told the ominous news while walking out to a bilateral press conference with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. She says the origin of our first case, and it coming only after suspicious medical staff did the test three times after two came back negative, spoke to the increasing need to make decisions with imperfect information.
"We were starting to target regions and that really relied on there being accurate information about what was happening in different countries around their spread. And so to have our first case come out of Iran. I think that started speaking to the issue that, in some cases, spread might be greater than what was being necessarily reported," she says.
Meanwhile, Italy had recorded their first Covid case just a month earlier, on January 31, but by the start of March this number was now in the tens of thousands and many hundreds were dying each day as its health system - one of the best-resourced in Europe - quickly became overwhelmed.
In governments and hospitals around the world, the plight of Wuhan - and Italy, particularly - became a subject of intense interest and dread.
"I was aware, when you looked at New Zealand's first case versus the rest of the world, our advantage was that everything happened here a couple of weeks behind everywhere else," Ardern says.
Grim modelling inside the Ministry of Health began mapping clinical results from overseas on to our population and health system, and estimated casualties from a widespread outbreak numbered in the tens of thousands. The figures were comparable to the worst mass-death events in the country's history: The two world wars, and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
"When we saw that modelling it was incredibly sobering and for me it meant that there was just no question about what we needed to do," Ardern says.
By early March business-as-usual had gone out the window in the Beehive, with Peters comparing the months of March and April to wartime decision-making as following usual processes would have been catastrophic.
"Norman Kirk's phrase about paralysis by analysis comes back to mind. We could not afford that," Peters says.
"The usual processes in government means that things do move at a very prescriptive pace because you can move only so quickly if you are documenting and going through the usual process that you would for everything. Actually, if we did that, we would have lost the very small windows of opportunity we had to stop a full-scale outbreak," says Ardern.
The tempo, both of the spread of Covid and the response to it, stepped up markedly through the start of March and reached its highest gear - remaining there for weeks - on the 14th when another emergency weekend Cabinet meeting began the process of closing New Zealand's borders with the entire world.
This time there was no delay of a day in order to inform diplomatic counterparts, with Ardern holding a press conference barely an hour after that meeting outlining the decision and using a term that has since become the cliche of this crisis.
"I make no apologies. This is an unprecedented time," she said.
Peters says the writing was now on the wall that the world was changing, and at speed.
"By the 14th of March, for example, we were saying 'Look it's time for you to go home if you want to go home and you are offshore, it is time for you to book really fast to get on the plane and come back to New Zealand because your options on travel will be closing real fast," he says.
Over the next week, Peters started grappling with the increasingly pressing issue of stranded citizens - tens of thousands of New Zealanders abroad, and also foreigners in this country on holiday - caught out by mushrooming lockdowns across the globe and the accelerating collapse of air travel routes.
There was also the increasing realisation that the low sea wall of our health system was at risk of being entirely swamped by an approaching Covid tsunami.
"You have to be a realist: We knew that the health system was not operating on all cylinders, so to speak," Peters says.
"We weren't ready for it. I am not blaming anyone, I am just saying that it was the level of concern we had. Alongside that, I suppose the major concern was just how widespread it might go. There was also this consideration from the Spanish flu" The death or tragedy factor of the Māori population for that translated into the Māori and Polynesian population in 2020 was eight to one. So we could see absolute calamity happening."
Ardern is more diplomatic about our health system, but reached the same conclusion after talking with other world leaders who had found fighting Covid in hospital wards was not a battle that could be won.
"No system in the world is adequate in the global pandemic of the scale," she says.
"We need to increase our capacity. We did need more ventilators. We needed more ICU beds. We needed more high dependency unit capacity. We needed to be able to clear out and draw on those facilities in order to cope. We should have that, but you could double your capacity and still be overrun. And so that was also a very jarring thing to learn and to see and we were not alone in that."
These concerns crystalised for the Prime Minister on Wednesday, March 18, when she was handed a graph outlining what "flattening the curve" - the campaign against Covid's slogan to date - would look like in practice. The graph sketched out how mitigation efforts could cause a smaller peak in case numbers, but spreading them over a longer timeframe, but there was a catch.
Watch Matt Nippert's full interview with Jacinda Ardern on The Pandemic Papers:
"I remember looking at the key for what the dotted line was across the middle: And it was our capacity. And the line dipped above. And it was clear to me that flattening the curve was not enough for New Zealand if we wanted to prevent people from dying. And so you will have heard a bit of a shift in our language. We started talking about these rolling waves."
After seeing that graph, Ardern went into a Covid Cabinet meeting and said: "I think we need an alert system. How else do you communicate this constant cycle of response to New Zealanders?"
That day she tasked officials to move fast and make things. Just three days after requesting the creation of an alert level system, she gave a speech live from her office unveiling it to the public.
"The world has changed. And it has changed very quickly," she said on March 21.
Ardern now agrees this speech was a Chekhov's gun moment. While on the surface it merely described the alert level system - a system which hadn't existed earlier in the week - the communication was intended as the first phase of its rollout.
"On that Saturday, in the back of my mind was, yes, that I was going to have to take New Zealanders up that scale pretty quickly," she says.
"The success was always going to [rely on] acceptance and compliance and there was always a trade-off to be made. If you did too much at once, we might not have been able to bring everyone so successfully as quickly as we needed to, we could have also created a complete panic - but we also did not have much time."
On the following Monday, March 23, Ardern and her Cabinet pulled the trigger and moved the country into level 4 lockdown, effective in 48 hours. Her announcement made explicit reference to the sobering modelling that had been previously been kept in the background of public communications.
"We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once. Now the virus has overwhelmed their health system and hundreds of people are dying every day," she said.
"If community transmission takes off in New Zealand the number of cases will double every five days. If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die."
By the end of that week, the country was in uncharted waters, with Parliament suspended, the country largely confined to their homes, and Cabinet now - like many essential workers - required to meet remotely.
Peters says working over Zoom was far from ideal and describes scenes that will be familiar with anyone who has recently had to grapple with videoconferencing.
"You've got to wait for this technology to work and often it did not work. Sometimes, days that should have been so many meetings over so many hours got so extended because you could not get all the ministers [online] at the right time," he says.
"Somebody's got their rodent deterrent sound on and it is coming through the sound system. Everybody was trying to find out where this appalling noise is coming from and upsetting the whole meeting. I would not want to do it again, frankly."
Peters spent most of lockdown working logistics, involved in efforts to evacuate 61,000 foreign nationals caught in-country - with flights arranged ad hoc by governments as commercial traffic had virtually ceased - and parallel efforts to repatriate tens of thousands of New Zealanders stranded offshore.
The numbers involved are comparable to airlifting the entire population of small towns. There were 10,000 German tourists alone trapped in New Zealand at the start of lockdown, which saw Lufthansa - an airline not typically seen in the country - tasked with repatriating in a series of flights that began on March 28.
These flights had an added benefit in that their cargo holds could be commandeered to assist with a high-level trade in critical supplies. On April 3 one of the Lufthansa flights departed New Zealand loaded with Fisher & Paykel Healthcare respiratory products. It had arrived carrying Covid testing kits manufactured by Roche Diagnostic in Frankfurt.
These supplies would prove crucial, as testing stockpiles began to become even more scarce as international demand seized markets. At the start of lockdown, the supply in New Zealand of test kits, essential to find and contain existing cases and give a bearing on when lockdown could lift, was down to six days' supply.
Peters says this shortage concerned him, as the difference between the lockdown success or expensive failure depended on the testing regime holding up.
"Confidence was based on our logistical capacity to do the backup work and all the monitoring, surveillance and testing. Was I confident at the start? No, because I do not think we were ready," he says.
"If there is a flood of demand, are we going to be standing around there with people needing to be tested with no testing equipment, no mask, PPE, and no ventilators? That was all a clear and present danger right there and then."
These shortages were paired with a bold - and risky - move to simultaneously ramp up testing. The stakes of this gamble are acknowledged by Ardern, who says in the early days of lockdown she was involved in daily calls with the Ministry of Health about supply lines.
"It was a risky call but it was a calculated risk," she says. She acknowledges disruption to supplies could easily have blown up in her face, "but it was the least risky option in terms of lives lost."
The challenge was not unique to New Zealand. International suppliers were faced with impossible-to-fulfil global demand as the virus spread and orders were benign rationed.
"In some cases, you were getting entire kits and others, you were getting parts of testing kits," she says. "No one was being given comfort with excess supply. So I was talking to other leaders and we were looking at other countries and they were having exactly the same issues as us. We were not alone."
Now, in June with returning travellers providing just a few new cases a week - down from more than 80 a day at the start of April - we weren't supposed to be in this position.
The white-knuckled rollercoaster ride of the first round against Covid in March and April, through a combination of advance warning, geography and a hard lockdown, led to unexpected success.
Peters characterises the thoughts of many - within government and in the wider public - when reflecting on our prospects at the start of lockdown and whether effective eradication was even then considered feasible. Many countries have used the same tools but only a couple have achieved our results.
"A lot of people doubted that - in the days of no smacking, no corporal punishment in school - that society's cohesiveness would have collapsed," he says.
But during March and April the public "put on a pretty sterling show," says Peters. "It was more successful it seems, with the lack of cases, than was ever imagined it could be."
After unexpectedly winning this first battle in Covid war, winning the peace - with a looming global depression, and a hitherto unimaginable need to quarantine dramatically reduced arrivals at the border - is proving an equally monumental challenge.
Last week the patchwork quarantine processes at the border - a system that had been inconceivable in January but was now a hundred-million-dollar lynchpin government policy - showed signs of ragged edges.
Protocols designed to ensure widespread testing weren't being followed, compassionate exemption applications were implemented following an adverse court ruling but resulted in testing and isolation guidelines being skirted, and social media was abuzz with pictures of mingling within isolation facilities.
It was, for the first time since mid-March, a sign that public confidence in the internationally-praised government response to Covid was jolted. And in the recovery phase, confidence - in terms of planning futures and investment decisions - is the key metric.
For Peters, the problem is striking in that it shows the universal and largely voluntary self-isolation period of lockdown hasn't seemed to have worked as well as the enforcement-backed regime for arrivals.
"Under [levels] 3 and 4, we were not on compulsory quarantine. We were in self-imposed quarantines, at the nearest place you could get when you go home," he says.
"Now we have gone to quarantine, we have some breakouts because some people have decided not to follow the script."
For Ardern, the recent experience is one of the only times during the crisis she has moved out of calm. "The protocols were all in place. The issue here is that they have not been followed. And so you can imagine the huge, of course, sense of frustration," she says.
The issue now is to ensure the border net is tight enough to catch future cases and reassure the public and the economy that these frayed edges will be mended and the country is not at risk of being dragged back into the highly disruptive wartime footing of April.
Ardern warns that this campaign will be long-run. "We were going to have extra cases because we still have New Zealanders coming in at the border. What we need to make sure is when that happens, everyone feels confident that the system works well enough to keep New Zealand insulated from that," she says.
With Covid still yet to peak in many parts of the world, with case numbers approaching 10 million, being in a position to fret over individual cases in isolation at the border is in a sense a luxury.
Ardern is keen to single out for praise over the past three months the supermarket workers ("They, for very modest earnings, were the face-to-face contact with the public all the way through and I think that says something to me about the calibre of people") as well as Juliet Gerrard ("My chief science adviser played a bigger role than anyone will ever know").
Winston, for his part, is calling for a Covid-19 medal to be delivered to those who - delivering food parcels, or in the public service - helped the nation through this crisis.
"It is not often that you want to praise the bureaucracy of this country but in this case, it is totally justified."
Watch Matt Nippert's full interview with Winston Peters on The Pandemic Papers: