By Praveen Menon
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand started a one-month compulsory lockdown on Thursday to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with warnings from authorities to stay at home or face big fines and even jail.
Motorways, train stations and streets in downtown Auckland and Wellington were eerily silent in the morning as people stayed indoors. Office towers and shopping arcades were shuttered.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said most things were going according to plan.
"The streets are essentially empty ... that's a remarkable feat and I want to thank New Zealanders for that," Ardern said at a news conference.
The government has allowed people in essential services to go to work. But schools, offices, restaurants, bars, places of worship and even playgrounds have been shut as part of the unprecedented lockdown.
Ardern declared a national state of emergency on Wednesday as the number of cases of COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus, surged by 50 to take the national tally to 205.
"Breaking the rules could kill someone close to you," Ardern warned on Wednesday.
The number of cases rose by 79 on Thursday, taking the tally to 283.
Police Chief Mike Bush said there were some people ignoring the lockdown and they could face serious consequences, including jail of up to six months.
"There were people driving around, flouting these rules, claiming that they had no knowledge about this. For those people, if they are seen again ... there will be a consequence of those actions," Bush said in an interview with state broadcaster TVNZ.
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This is only the second time in New Zealand’s history that a national emergency has been declared, with the first in February 2011, after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck the South Island city of Christchurch, killing almost 200.
But the lockdown and disruption have raised alarm over the health of the economy. The finance minister said the impact of the coronavirus on jobs would be "significantly worse" than the global financial crisis.
The government has frozen rent and mortgages and announced a NZ$12.1 billion fiscal stimulus package to support the economy.
New Zealand, with about 5 million people, has fewer infections than many other countries, but Ardern's government wants to move fast to halt the spread.
Countries that have locked down their populations to prevent the spread need to put a premium on finding new cases and doing everything they can "to suppress and control" the virus, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
India, the world's second most populous country, put its 1.3 billion citizens in lockdown from midnight on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Grant McCool)