The Government is allowing people over 70 the same extra freedoms as everyone else under alert level 3, including driving to a nearby beach or swimming from the shore – even though they are at greater risk of dying from Covid-19.

This is a significant change from last month, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked only the most vulnerable people to stay at home while the country was at alert level 2.

New Zealanders are anticipating greater freedoms when the lockdown eases at 11.59pm tomorrow, and new guidelines issued this morning make it clear that level 3 restrictions will be the same across all age groups.

The easing of restrictions here comes as the official global death toll from coronavirus passed the 200,000 mark. The tally is compiled by John Hopkins University from government figures, and the actual toll is feared much higher. More than 50,000 people in the US have died.

Elderly New Zealanders were being asked to be “especially carefully” as restrictions ease.

“Obviously age is one determinant of risk, but people over 70 are perfectly able to make these judgments for themselves,” Seniors Minister Tracey Martin told the Herald.

“It’s wrong if people who are fit and healthy are prevented from working or looking after themselves as anyone else would.”

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The fragility of older people towards Covid-19 was underlined yesterday with the country’s 18th coronavirus fatality – an Auckland woman in her 70s who had an underlying health condition.

She had been transferred from St Margaret’s Hospital and Rest Home and died in Waitakere hospital, the second St Margaret’s resident to pass away in Waitakere.

Daily visits by a family member were allowed under strict conditions in the days leading to the woman’s passing.

All of the 18 people who have died so far were in their 60s or older, and 16 of them were in their 70s or older, including 10 from the Rosewood Rest Home cluster in Christchurch.

Three of yesterday’s five new cases were also linked to aged residential facilities – one in Auckland and two in Christchurch.

Yesterday was the seventh consecutive day where the number of new cases was single digits.

There were seven people in hospital, including one person in the ICU in Middlemore.

The number of tests processed was well over 6000 for the third straight day, and now 115,015 tests have been completed.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked over 70s, and no other age group, to stay at home last month when she put the country at alert level 2. Photo / Mark Mitchell

There remain 16 significant clusters, and the chain of transmission around the 13 cases linked to a Wellington wedding is now considered to be shut down.

That is because there have been no new cases across two incubation periods – or 28 days.

More transmission chains for the other clusters are expected to be declared broken in coming days.

The total number of confirmed and probable cases in New Zealand is now 1461, with 1118 people reported as recovered.

That means there are 325 active cases, 48 of whom are aged 70 or over.

When Ardern introduced the four-tier alert level system during an address to the nation on March 21, she said the country was at alert level 2 and asked people over 70 to stay at home as much as possible.

That request did not apply to people under 70.

“I’m asking everyone to support our older New Zealanders by doing things like keeping in contact with them and dropping off food or other supplies,” Ardern said in the address.

Today Martin said the basic rules at alert level 3 will be the same for over 70s and those with underlying health problems as for everyone else.

“Over 70s and other higher-risk groups have the same rights as everyone else to go to work, to exercise and to access essential services like supermarkets and banks.

“It’s just that we’re asking them to be especially careful.”

From Tuesday, that means they can extend their bubbles, drive to a nearby beach or park for exercise, swim or fish from the shore, or take children to school if they are caregivers.

They can also return to work if those workplaces were Covid-safe.

“There is no reason to exclude workers on the basis of age or disability,” Martin said.

Seniors Minister Tracey Martin says over 70s will have the same rights to move freely and return to work as everyone else under alert level 3, which starts on Tuesday. Photo / Mark Mitchell

If they needed to manage their work differently because of specific health conditions, Martin said that the Government’s leave support scheme had been expanded to all businesses, not just essential services.

Meanwhile the Health Ministry has revealed that a contact-tracing app would be available within a fortnight.

It would be the first version of the app, and would enable people to pre-register contact details to help contact-tracers in their work.

“The app itself is undergoing further development,” the ministry said in a statement.

That included work on the use of scannable QR codes, which would allow people to check in at businesses or other destinations.

The ability to rapidly trace and isolate contacts is considered essential to keep Covid-19 under control.

However with alert level 3 looming, it remains unclear if the ministry’s contact-tracing capacity has reached director general of health Ashley Bloomfield’s “gold standard” of tracing 80 per cent of contacts within three days.

The ministry said the regional Public Health Units and the national contact-tracing service were prepared for the “contact-tracing needs that might be ahead of us”.

That included the ability to scale up to making 10,000 calls a day.

“There is also ongoing work to keep improving our contact-tracing capacity and capability.”

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