Hugs, rugby on agenda as New Zealand continues to ease lockdown

Wellington (AFP) –


Super Rugby in New Zealand is poised to resume when the country relaxes its COVID-19 lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday, with bars, retailers and schools also set to open.

Ardern is due to announce next Monday whether New Zealand will move to 'Alert Level 2', which allows significantly more freedom than Kiwis have experienced since lockdown began in late March.

While she stressed no decision had yet been made, Ardern acknowledged New Zealand's success in containing the virus had put it in a good position to cautiously relax the rules.

"Think of ourselves as halfway down Everest," she said.

"It's clear that no one wants to hike back up that peak and the descent is known to be even more dangerous."

New Zealand, with a population of five million, has recorded 1,139 coronavirus cases and 21 deaths.

The number of new cases has been in single digits since April 14, with just one new infection recorded on Thursday.

Under New Zealand's four-tier alert system, social distancing protocols are enforced less stringently under level two, allowing contact sports including the national game of rugby union.

"Professional sport will be able to resume domestically under level two," Ardern said.

"Super Rugby and the netball premiership have already confirmed their intention to resume a domestic competition, which I know will be cause for great excitement."

New Zealand's five Super Rugby teams have been out of action since the lockdown began and the game's governing body said once clearance was confirmed it would have a competition running within four weeks.

"We're delighted for our fans that in a best-case scenario we will have top-quality rugby back on our screens next month," New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said.

He said the competition would see the five teams play over 10 rounds in closed stadiums.

Ardern emphasised New Zealand's borders would remain closed and Kiwis would have to adapt to a "new normal" under level two.

"It's designed to get as many people back to work as possible and get the economy running, but safely," she said.

Bars and restaurants can re-open, but with a maximum of 100 people, while hairdressers and beauticians will need to wear personal protective equipment.

Shopping malls and other retail outlets will be back in business, while schools will have full classes after running a skeleton operation in recent weeks.

Domestic travel will also be allowed, providing a boost for the hard-hit tourism industry.

Health department director-general Ashley Bloomfield welcomed the prospect of more relaxed rules.

"For my part, I'm looking forward to giving some of my more extended family members and friends a careful hug," he said.

"But for work colleagues and people I'm meeting for the first time, I'll probably stick to an elbow bump."