New Zealand, a global pinnacle of its success in fighting the coronavirus, unveiled a tentative plan for reopening on Thursday, pledging to maintain its goal of zero coronavirus cases even as it begins to open up its borders.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand’s border restrictions will ease early next year, allowing vaccinated travelers from low-risk countries to enter without being quarantined. The national borders have been closed to almost all foreign travelers since March 2020.
In a new program starting in October, vaccinated New Zealanders returning to the country may also be able to self-isolate at home, skipping the 14-day hotel quarantine currently required.
However, Ms Ardern warned that the country’s borders would not return to their pre-pandemic norm if passengers were not faced with vaccination or testing requirements.
“Just like after 9/11, the border will never be the same after Covid,” she said. “Things can change, but that doesn’t mean we can’t adapt to it in a way that eventually feels normal again.”
New Zealand, a geographically isolated country with a population of about five million people, was a rare success story during the pandemic, with just 2,905 cases and 26 deaths from the virus, according to a NewsMadura database.
In addition to closing its borders early, New Zealand has implemented one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, allowing it to limit the spread of the virus. Since then, it has lifted almost all restrictions and responded to rare outbreaks with strict, local lockdowns and highly sophisticated contact tracing.
The country’s crackdown has put it at odds with many of its closest allies, who have suffered a much heavier toll during the pandemic. Australia, which until recently pursued a similar ‘Covid-zero’ strategy, is now battling rising cases of the Delta variant, prompting New Zealand to indefinitely suspend quarantine-free travel between the two countries.
“If we give up our elimination approach too soon, there will be no turning back,” Ms Ardern said at a news conference. “We could see significant outbreaks here, such as some overseas countries that have opened up early in their vaccination rollout.”
New Zealand itself is relatively early in its vaccination campaign, using only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and lagging behind those of other rich countries. About 29 percent of adults have received at least the first dose of the vaccine, while 17 percent have been fully vaccinated. The country plans to accelerate the rollout in the coming weeks, with all residents over the age of 16 allowed to make appointments from September 1.