New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference on May 04, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.

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Government-imposed lockdowns have become a contentious topic in some countries, as the human toll of the coronavirus is weighed against potential economic havoc.

More than 3.5 million cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed around the world to date, according to Johns Hopkins University, over 1 million of which have been in the United States.

But in New Zealand, where the population of 4.8 million is slowly emerging from life under lockdown, the government claims the virus has stopped spreading — seemingly showcasing the success of its “go hard, go early” lockdown strategy.

On Monday, New Zealand recorded zero new cases of the coronavirus — its first day without any new infections since the country went into lockdown in March.

“We can take heart in recording no new cases today,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a press briefing.

However, she cautioned that the end of community transmission of Covid-19 should not encourage Kiwis to stop adhering to lockdown rules.

“Stay the course,” Ardern urged the public. “We cannot afford to squander the good work to date when our end goal is so close and within reach.”

New Zealand entered a level 3 lockdown on March 23, meaning non-essential businesses were closed, discretionary domestic air travel was banned, and all events and gatherings had to be cancelled.

It then progressed into a level 4 lockdown — a stricter approach dubbed the “eliminate” policy — 48 hours later. Under this policy, people were urged to only maintain contact with those they lived with.

Even earlier, on March 19, New Zealand closed its borders, banning all inbound travel to the country with the exception of returning New Zealanders and some essential health workers.

New Zealand lifted some of its lockdown measures at 11.59 p.m. local time on April 27, moving back into the level 3 stage and allowing people to expand their social “bubbles” to reconnect with close family outside of their households. Residents are now allowed to travel around the country if necessary, but can “only move once, and in one direction.” Some education and business has been allowed to resume.

The country will remain under “Alert Level 3” as a further review is conducted, with an alert level decision due on May 11. New Zealanders are yet to be informed what a level 2 lockdown would look like.

To date, New Zealand has had 1,487 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and just 20 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

At a press conference on April 27, as the country prepared to return to level 3 lockdown, Ardern said models projected New Zealand could have had more than 1,000 cases a day if shutdown measures had been delayed.

“We will never know what would have actually happened without our level 4 restrictions, but we can look overseas and see that this devastating scenario has played out in many other countries,” she said. “Through our cumulative actions we have avoided the worst.”

However, at fewer than 5 million, New Zealand’s population is much smaller than some of the worst-hit nations.

The U.S., which has had more than 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases, has a population of around 330 million. Meanwhile, Italy, Spain and the U.K. — the countries with the next-highest numbers of cases — all have populations more than ten times bigger than New Zealand’s.

A nurse based in the New Zealand city of Hamilton, who did not want to be named, told CNBC she believed governments’ decisions had determined how badly countries were impacted by the pandemic.

“Seeing what’s going on overseas is terrifying to me as a health professional,” she said. “Having the number of deaths that the U.K., U.S. and Italy are having would be absolutely debilitating to New Zealand, and it is the direct result of government inaction. I think it was always likely that some people would pass away from Covid-19, but the thousands and thousands of deaths in some countries can be linked to poor government decisions.”

She praised New Zealand’s government for acting quickly and decisively as the coronavirus spread across borders.

“It’s really important that we acted the way we did to avoid a massive outbreak,” she said. “I appreciate that my government has taken it seriously, even if it does mean a more restricted way of living. It’s taken a lot of planning to get things ready for all the ‘just-in-case’ situations, but the hospitals don’t appear to have been overwhelmed by patients.”

“I do believe that if we didn’t have a lockdown, we would have had a massive amount of hospital admissions,” she added.

Testing capacity

As well as being quick to enact lockdown measures, New Zealand has worked hard to ramp up testing.

The country now has the capacity to process up to 8,000 tests per day, Ardern said last week, meaning New Zealand had one of highest testing rates per capita in the world.

Without any mitigation measures, Covid-19’s R0 rating would be around 2.5, according to Ardern. Under lockdown, the R0 of the virus had dropped to 0.4 — meaning each infected person would only transmit the virus to less than half a person.

An R naught, or R0, rating of 1 means the average person infected with the virus will spread it to one other person. If a disease is given an R0 above 1, it means an outbreak is expected to continue.

Clear communication

Prior to the lockdown being implemented, emergency text messages were sent to residents with a clear explanation of what the level 4 lockdown would entail.

“This message is for all of New Zealand. We are depending on you,” the message read. “Where you stay tonight is where you must stay from now on … it is likely level 4 measures will stay in place for a number of weeks.”

Christine Nam, a 31-year-old from capital city Wellington, told CNBC all communication from the government had been clear, concise, and based on scientific fact.

“I always understood the importance of complying,” she said. “The government was really good at managing people’s expectations — we were told it would take at least two weeks for signs that the lockdown was having an impact on the numbers. This made the purpose of the lockdown easy to understand and accept.”

In some countries, such as the U.K., governments have come under fire for not being clear on exactly what is and is not allowed under lockdown.

“The New Zealand government was really transparent about what each lockdown level meant, and it wasn’t afraid to redefine or clarify in more detail as the situation evolved,” Nam added. “Most New Zealanders can verbalize the government’s response to Covid-19, while the same can’t be said for other countries because the response has been muddled and indecisive.”

Economic impact

While New Zealand has shut down transmission of the virus within its borders, the country has not been spared from the economic damages being felt around the world.

ASB and ANZ banks both expect the country’s economy to contract by around 6% this year as a result of the pandemic, the New Zealand Herald reported in March.

Last week, New Zealand’s Parliament passed a tax reform package that will see over 3 billion New Zealand dollars ($1.8 billion) refunded to small businesses, taking the total value of fiscal measures implemented amid the crisis up to 23 billion New Zealand dollars, according to local media outlets.

Ardern herself, alongside government ministers and public service chief executives, has taken a 20% pay cut amid the crisis.

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