New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that strict border controls would remain this year but she hoped to cautiously reopen to the rest of the world in 2022 while maintaining the country’s virus-free status.
She said the changes would be “careful and deliberate” to avoid allowing variants such as the highly contagious Delta strain into New Zealand, where there is no local transmission and domestic life is close to normal.
“Rushing could see us in the situation many other countries are finding themselves in,” she said, citing an outbreak of the Delta variant in neighbouring Australia that has forced its two largest cities into renewed lockdown.
Ardern won widespread praise for her decisive early response to the pandemic, resulting in just 26 deaths in a population of five million.
But New Zealand’s vaccine rollout has been less stellar, with under 20 percent of the population fully inoculated.
The centre-left leader has faced calls to ease border measures from sectors such as healthcare, hospitality and agriculture, which are facing acute labour shortages due to the absence of foreign workers.
Ardern said vaccinations would ramp up with the goal of offering jabs to all the eligible population by year’s end, allowing a relaxation of border policies.
Under the proposed changes, international arrivals would be assessed on vaccination status and whether they have travelled from a country deemed high, medium or low risk.
They could face the full two-week quarantine, a shorter period of isolation, home isolation or quarantine-free entry if they are vaccinated and come from a low-risk country.
“Our ultimate goal is to get to quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travellers,” Ardern said, without providing a timetable.
She said international travel would never be the same as it was before the pandemic.
“Vaccines, border testing and maybe a bit of monitoring of symptoms when you travel will eventually become our baseline. And we will get used to it,” she said.
New Zealand’s tentative attempts to relax border controls have so far met with mixed success.
A travel bubble with Australia faced numerous disruptions and was finally suspended in June as multiple outbreaks spread across the Tasman Sea.
Quarantine-free travel is allowed with the tiny Cook Islands, and New Zealand this month launched a scheme to bring in seasonal workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu without having to self-isolate.