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New Zealand relaxes COVID-19 social distancing restrictions as just five new cases reported

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By Lauren Chadwick
Virus Outbreak New Zealand Elimination
Virus Outbreak New Zealand Elimination   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Nick Perry, File

New Zealand will ease coronavirus restrictions on Monday night after just five new cases were recorded in the country.

Health authorities announced just one new confirmed case and four additional "probable" cases on Monday. All came from known sources or clusters in the country. 

New Zealand, an island nation with a population of some 4.9 million, has recorded a total of 1,469 coronavirus cases and 19 deaths. Only seven people are currently hospitalised with the virus.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been lauded for her swift response to coronavirus, with New Zealand imposing lockdown measures when there were just over 200 cases in late March.

Ardern said on Monday that estimates showed that the country could have had some 1,000 cases a day if the measures had not been put in place.

The measures, part of the country's Alert 4 lockdown, are similar to those in place in some European countries. Citizens were allowed to buy essential items but most businesses were closed.

People were also allowed to go outside to exercise, but only by themselves.

“We have done what very few countries have been able to do. We have stopped a wave of devastation," Ardern said last week as she announced that the country would extend the measures.

The country now moves to a lower level lockdown, where people will be allowed to visit close family outside of their immediate household and some primary schools are set to open.

A Ministry of Education bulletin said that there would likely be a hybrid learning environment that includes distance and on-site learning.

Meanwhile, retail stores can only open for delivery or pre-ordered pick-up to prevent transmission.

"It is not and cannot be a return to pre COVID-19 life," Ardern said. "That day will come but it is not here yet."

The country will be at this "Alert 3" level lockdown for two weeks until May 11 when the Cabinet will make a decision about what the next steps will be.

“It's been nearly five weeks living and working in ways that just two months ago would have seemed impossible but we did and we have done it together,” Ardern said.