As it prepares to reopen its borders after nearly 18 months of pandemic-induced isolation, New Zealand plans to allow vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries to enter quarantine-free beginning in early 2022.
Tight border controls and its geographic advantage aided New Zealand in eliminating COVID-19 much faster than almost all other countries, but the Pacific Island nation of 5 million people was effectively cut off from the rest of the world.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week that the country is still not ready to open up entirely but will open in phases from early next year.
“We’re simply not in a position to fully reopen just yet,” Ardern said in a speech outlining plans to reconnect New Zealand with the world.
“When we move, we will be careful and deliberate, because we want to move with confidence and with as much certainty as possible,” she said.
Ardern stated that the government will consider allowing vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries to travel without a quarantine beginning in the first quarter of next year.
Those travelling from medium-risk countries will either self-isolate or stay in a quarantine hotel for a shorter period of time. Those arriving from high-risk countries or who are unvaccinated will still be held in quarantine for 14 days.
Some vaccinated travellers will be able to participate in a pilot programme from October to December this year, in which they will be able to travel and self-isolate at home.
Ardern has received international acclaim for successfully containing local COVID-19 transmission through a strict elimination strategy. Only 2,500 cases and 26 deaths have been reported in the country.
However, as private businesses and the public sector grapple with worker shortages and reduced incomes, pressure to reopen borders has grown.
Despite the phased reopening, the government will stay on its elimination strategy to maintain its hard-won gains as one of the few virus-free countries, Ardern said.
“That is not to say that the settings we have today, will be the settings we have forever. Nobody wants that,” she said.
Ardern also stated that the country will accelerate its vaccination rollout, with all eligible ages able to book their vaccine by September 1 and a six-week gap between doses to ensure that more New Zealanders are at least partially vaccinated.
The vaccination process in New Zealand has been slower than in most other countries, with just over 21% of the population fully vaccinated so far.
Critics slammed the delayed vaccination, claiming that the government must move faster to protect people before opening borders.
“While vaccination numbers are finally rising, we are still the slowest in the OECD and 120th in the world,” said opposition National Party leader Judith Collins.
“This is not the ‘front of the queue’ we were promised and is simply not good enough considering the heightened risk from new variants.”
The Delta outbreaks in Australia prompted Ardern to suspend the “travel bubble” that allowed quarantine-free travel between the two countries last month.
By Joe Cusmano