Life in New Zealand at ‘Level 1’. Being Kind.

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for my friend Stefanie’s blog titled: “Corona Quarantine Chronicles: A Scotland Guide on Lockdown Down Under in New Zealand”. It was just around the time when I was beginning this blog. I thought I’d write today as a bit of an update on the situation now.

Intro to my article on Postcards from Stef by Stefanie Bielekova (published May 21, 2020)

Back when the article was published on Postcards from Stef, at the end of May, New Zealand had just eased up on lockdown restrictions by moving to Alert Level 2. In New Zealand terms this meant that the disease was contained, but the risk of community transmission remained. We had spent 5 weeks at Alert Level 4 (strict lockdown), 2 weeks at Level 3 (lockdown but slightly eased) and then went through 4.5 weeks at Level 2. Since June 8th we have been in Level 1 meaning the disease is considered to be contained within New Zealand. Not eliminated, but contained. So that’s now eight weeks and counting at Level 1.

Communications delivered to every NZ household at the start of lockdown. Photo by Colin Mairs

I reported then (May 21) that Covid-19 numbers of confirmed cases were just less than 1,500 cases, and there were 21 deaths in the whole country. At time of writing now (Aug 3) we have just over 1,500 cases deaths and there has been just one more death between then and now meaning the total number of deaths in New Zealand is 22.

“When there were still only a few thousand cases worldwide in mid-March (and when I was mid-way through a 2 week tour of New Zealand) Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closed the borders entirely to almost all non-citizens or residents.”

I realise that talking about New Zealand Covid-19 numbers, especially because people naturally compare to other countries, can come across as sounding as though we are bragging, but I mention it purely to give a clear picture of how the situation is here now, to set us up for a look at how we got here, and the benefits we can enjoy because of that.

When there were still only a few thousand cases worldwide in mid-March (and when I was mid-way through a 2 week tour of New Zealand) Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closed the borders entirely to almost all non-citizens or residents. The aim was to stop the influx of the virus and prevent community transmission.

The New Zealand response has been applauded by the World Health Organization (WHO) in this video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLT-XdPRUAA]

Sharing COVID-19 experiences: The New Zealand response‘ from World Health Organization (WHO) YouTube channel.

“Some people thought it was an overreaction when scientists said close the borders and lockdown the country. The numbers of cases went up, as expected, but whilst lockdown trundled on the numbers started to level out.”

We went into lockdown when NZ had recorded just 102 cases and no deaths. Some people thought it was an overreaction when scientists said close the borders and lockdown the country. The numbers of cases went up, as expected, but whilst lockdown trundled on the numbers started to level out. The core public health measures of testing, contact tracing, and isolation of cases and close contacts were fundamental in breaking the chain of transmission in the community. Daily new case numbers peaked at 89.

A core part of the success and what impressed me most whilst I followed the situation in other countries (mainly the UK and USA) was the coherence and comprehensiveness of the NZ government’s communication campaign. Messaging was clear and consistent which helped the public to understand what was expected of them and as importantly the reasons WHY.

We are only at the end of the beginning now and are remaining vigilant. At Level 1, with the disease contained in New Zealand but still not controlled overseas, borders remain closed to anyone who is not a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident. Self-isolation and quarantine are required for new arrivals into the country (i.e. mostly New Zealanders returning from overseas).

“We are only at the end of the beginning now and are remaining vigilant. At Level 1, with the disease contained in New Zealand but still not controlled overseas, borders remain closed to anyone who is not a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident.”

Schools and workplaces are open, and must operate safely. There are no restrictions on personal movement, but people are encouraged to maintain a record of where they have been and there are a number of apps that can be downloaded to help with this and QR codes to scan at entrances to shops and other buildings.

There are no restrictions on gatherings but organisers are encouraged to maintain records to enable contact tracing. People are strongly encouraged to stay home if sick, and to report flu-like symptoms. We still encouraged to diligently wash and dry our hands, cough into our elbows, and resist touching our faces.

Tour to Tongariro with Roady. My first time back touring since March! Photo credit: Roady

Personally, I have been slowly coming to terms with the realisation that there will be no overseas visitors to New Zealand for a while and hence very little touring work for me. How long ‘a while’ is going to be is still anybody’s guess. We took the difficult decision to postpone our Mondumo Tours planned for October and November as it looks very unlikely that our North American friends booked to join those tours will be able to get into the country. We remain hopeful that the rescheduled tours in February and March 2021 will be able to go ahead.

I have had some work with the domestic market – taking a group down to Tongariro for the weekend which was great fun. I have also been working on other projects, such as the Guide Collective along with some of my tour guide friends and colleagues. Much more to come on that soon!

“We can enjoy these freedoms thanks to the shared sacrifice of what has become known as ‘the team of five million’.”

Work aside, life in New Zealand feels normal, more or less. We can enjoy these freedoms thanks to the shared sacrifice of what has become known as ‘the team of five million‘ (New Zealand’s population reached 5 million at the beginning of this year). And we remain vigilant. Jacinda Ardern’s rhetoric throughout the pandemic has remained focused on framing the effort of the nation as one of cooperation. The team of five million must work together to keep each other healthy.

In other news – we got a puppy just after lockdown! Some of you will have met Indie already on my facebook or instagram. She is a rescue pup from the SPCA and we love her to bits. We don’t know what breed she is – the Dog Scanner app says mostly French Mastiff, but every day we see a different breed in her – Ridgeback, Pit Bull, Boxer, Hungarian Vizsla, Labrador…? But certainly 100% Good Girl [read in high-pitched talking-to-a-dog voice] 🙂

Claudia and I are both dog people and we had pondered getting a dog for a long time, but always concluded that we travel too much to have a dog. Well, now that we are not traveling it is the perfect time and at least while she is a puppy she has lots of our attention. She loves running in the park with other dogs and she also loves eating (not chewing but eating) every stick she finds outside. Thankfully she doesn’t chew things in the house and she is very well behaved at home. She just embarrasses us with naughty behaviour outside! Haha!

Colin, Claudia and Indie on the day she adopted us.

As for the name, I would love to come up with an inventive story but she was already named Indie by her foster family and we just stuck with it! Her Sunday name is Indiana, which I have since learned is similar to the story of Indiana Jones, whose dog was called Indiana and he was nicknamed after the dog*. Well at least that suits Indie’s adventurous nature!

*sorry, I meant to say ‘Spoiler Alert!’ and thanks Mike the Guide, if you’re reading this, for that interesting titbit of information!

“I have started an introductory course to Te Reo Māori (the Māori language of New Zealand), which was one of my pre-lockdown aspirations.”

The other thing I am proud to say is that I have started an introductory course to Te Reo Māori (the Māori language of New Zealand). This was one of my pre-lockdown aspirations. I already have a good chunk of the basic vocabulary so it is good to now start learning the proper grammar rules and language structure.

A happy place for me: language learning. Te Reo Māori workbooks. Photo by Colin Mairs

I’m attending classes once per week and hope to continue past the 8 week introductory course and take it as far as I can if time allows to be able to attend classes. Given that I already speak French, Spanish and Portuguese I have an ear for languages and that seems to help me pick up easier on learning other languages. I’ll share more on this as I get further into my Reo journey (second class is tomorrow). By the way, ‘Te Reo’ is how the language is generally referred to in New Zealand and just means ‘the language’, so in the longer form ‘Te Reo Māori’ is ‘the Māori language’.

Colin teaching the phonetics of the Māori language on tour with the place name Te Whakarewarewatangaoteopetauaawāhiao

One thing I have noticed over this time is that people certainly have an appetite to travel again once it is safe to do so. Forward bookings via our Provisional Reservations for our 2021 tours have been strong and I hope we find a way to travel safely with a vaccine or safely without one. I think both are possibilities.

Mondumo Tours in 2021www.mondumo.com/nz-tours-2021/

I’d love to hear your impressions on my update – whether it’s about New Zealand’s Covid-19 response, wee cutie Indie or which language you would most like to learn. Please keep your comments on politics respectful. Please. I know that a lot of people have strong and emotional reactions and anger towards their governments for the way they have handled the situation or otherwise. If anything can be learned from the New Zealand approach I think it is the importance of one of the main recurring messages used by Jacinda Ardern throughout the pandemic response and still today, and that is the simple but deeply meaningful phrase ‘Be Kind’.

Stay classy! See you in the comments below.

  • Colin

Our first restaurant meal in 8 weeks!

Last night my lovely wife Claudia and I went for dinner at our favourite local restaurant – the Engine Room. It was our first meal in a restaurant in 8 weeks!!! New Zealand dropped down to Alert Level 2 yesterday. Our 4 level alert system was introduced at the end of March. We spent just over 4 weeks in the highest alert level (4), and then dropped down to Level 3 for 2 weeks, and now into Level 2. That means that we can now go to restaurants (with one metre spacing between tables), we can hug our friends again (a few hugs are already scheduled for this weekend), we can go to libraries, museums, gyms, cinemas, theatres, we can travel within New Zealand, children are returning to schools, and we can get haircuts(!). Social gatherings are restricted to maximum 10 people, 50 for funerals, and all these places will still have social distancing and hygiene measures in place.

About to enter the restaurant. Hungry eyes.

The Engine Room was actually where we were supposed to go for our wedding anniversary dinner on 24th March, but on 23rd March it was announced that New Zealand was moving to Alert Level 3, and then in 48 hours to Level 4. With restaurants closed at Level 3 and Level 4 that meant our anniversary dinner was moved to the popular venue of “Casa de la Oor Hoose” (that’s “House of Our House” in Spanish and Scots…) and spaghetti bolognese a la Colin. Picture the spaghetti scene from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp….

Prior to last night we had actually only eaten at the Engine Room once – on my birthday last year. I thought it was just Claudia and I going for dinner but when we got to the restaurant some good friends were already sat at the table hiding behind menus. It was a very special and fun birthday dinner. Due to the fact we were supposed to be going there for our anniversary and then we couldn’t, I suppose it created more of an emotional connection and during lockdown I enjoyed reading the heartfelt newsletters from the owners about how their family life had changed and sharing their hopes and fears for their business. Like many other restaurants in New Zealand and around the world they adapted to offer take away meals once this was permitted at Level 3.

In Level 2 (the current situation) restaurants and cafes have to provide a single server for the whole time you are in the restaurant in an attempt to reduce person to person contact. This means that they have to have more waiting staff on than would normally be required. We could see that the staff were busy and working hard last night. By chance we were attended to by the same waitress who had served us at my birthday meal (Claudia is great with faces and recognized it was her). The service was excellent.

Cheers my dears!

This might be sounding like a sponsored ad for the Engine Room but it’s really not! We just genuinely had a nice meal and we are also so grateful to be able to do that again. Another special occasion!

As for the covid situation and it’s containment in New Zealand – at time of writing (Friday, 15th May 2020) we have just under 1,500 total cases of infection and a total of 21 deaths. Level 2 means that the disease is contained but there is still a risk of community transmission.

At Level 2 entering New Zealand as a visitor / holidaymaker is still pretty much impossible. If and when we go to Level 1 we will have “border entry measures”. What exactly that will mean by the time we reach Level 1 is still not entirely clear. It could range from simply a temperature check, perhaps a test, or very likely to be a period of quarantine. As regards our 14 day New Zealand tour scheduled for October 2020, which I’m running in collaboration with my tour guide friend Sarah, it’s clear that a 14 day quarantine period upon arrival, followed by a 14 day tour would not be practical for most people. It’s still 5 months away and 5 months is a long time in this pandemic. Just think where things were 5 months ago at the start of January – relatively normal!

Over this lockdown period I have also been working on plans for a short tour in Australia which will dovetail with two New Zealand tours in February and March 2021. It is a great feeling to have that launched! As for what the travel situation will be by Feb/March and  whether or not the tour will reach minimum numbers and be able to run…. The universe will decide! We have the advantage of being a small and nimble company so we can make quick changes if needs be. I am grateful that we have been focussed on small group tours since the start. I think small groups will become the favoured way to go for people looking for group tour experiences. The idea of what is meant by a “small group” varies greatly as I found out last week on a webinar with some US-based travel agents and tour guides when they talked about 30 people being a small group! Our tours are usually limited to 24 people, but I’d like to work towards making that even smaller. Watch this space!

– Colin

If you want to see the timeline (so far) of New Zealand’s response to COVID-19 here it is: https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2020/04/coronavirus-timeline-of-new-zealand-s-response-to-covid-19.html

Australia in 6 Days tour: www.mondumo.com/australia-in-6-days

New Zealand in 14 Days tour: www.mondumo.com/tours

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How do you write a first blog post?

How do you write a first blog post? I’m not even going to google that, I’m just going to write it here. And just like that – my blog is born!

This blog will be mostly written by me, Colin Mairs, except when it is not, or when we have the occasional guest blogger. I am a tour guide and joint-owner/director of a small tours business (Mondumo Small Group Tours), so this blog will be mostly travel-focussed. I’m also into Scotch whisky, so perhaps some of my whisky musings will make an appearance. I’m originally from Glasgow Scotland but I currently live in Auckland New Zealand – more in About Me. I am married to the wonderful Claudia and we are both self-confessed foodies – so expect a food post or two in the mix.

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