New Zealand will ease its COVID border restrictions starting this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday.
The country will first allow in New Zealand citizens, residents and some visa holders who are fully vaccinated and coming from Australia, without requiring them to undergo a minimum 10-day quarantine at government-managed facilities, starting Feb. 27. But they must self-quarantine elsewhere and must have been in Australia for 14 days before arrival.
Two weeks later, the country aims to welcome New Zealanders from anywhere in the world, as well as skilled workers. In gradual steps, the country is set to lift all of its pandemic travel restrictions by October.
The plan marks the first time since early 2020 that New Zealand will open its borders to travelers without requiring them to undergo quarantine at government-managed facilities, minus a short-lived quarantine-free travel corridor with Australia. Officials had recently suspended new bookings into the country’s mandatory quarantine system for returning citizens, worried the virus would leak out into the community from those government-run facilities.
Just a week ago, a pregnant journalist from New Zealand drew attention to the country’s strict coronavirus rules for citizens living abroad after she said she chose to stay in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan because her native country did not allow her to return. She later said that the government reversed course and approved her emergency application for entrance, and that she would be going home in March.
Ardern credited the strict border restrictions for helping the country avoid large-scale deaths. But now, with the great majority of New Zealand’s 5 million people fully vaccinated, the prime minister said it was time to open up.
“We must turn to the importance of reconnection. Families and friends need to reunite. Our businesses need skills to grow. Exporters need to travel to make new connections,” she said.
Ardern’s approval ratings have fallen recently, and she has acknowledged the strain her country’s restrictions have put on its citizens. “I still feel really confident knowing that people know we’ve made those tough decisions for all the right reasons,” Arden told New Zealand’s 1News in January. “Yes, that will have an impact on things like polls. It doesn’t change the decisions we’ve made, the importance of them and how well they’ve served New Zealand.”
Ardern won a landslide reelection in October 2020 in a resounding show of support for her successful handling of the early months of the pandemic.
New Zealand’s restrictions gave it time to build its defenses, Ardern said Thursday, and become one of the “most vaccinated countries in the world.”
About 93% of New Zealand residents who are 12 or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry. About 40% of children ages 5 to 11 have received a first dose. About a quarter of its people have been boosted, figures compiled by Our World in Data show.
New Zealand has been experiencing an uptick in cases in recent weeks, driven by an outbreak of the omicron variant that led to Ardern canceling her upcoming wedding celebrations. But deaths remain low in comparison to other countries. The case fatality rate, the ratio between confirmed COVID-19 deaths and confirmed cases, stood at 0.32% this week — one of the lowest rates in the world.