New Zealand laid out a plan for easing some of the world’s toughest border curbs, which have kept out the highly contagious delta variant and seen the island nation effectively Covid-free for much of the pandemic.
The government will speed up its vaccine rollout this year and begin a phased reopening of the border in early 2022, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday in Wellington. Vaccinated travelers from low-risk countries will eventually be able to enter New Zealand without going into quarantine, she said.
“Getting vaccinated is the number one thing everyone can do to be protected against Covid-19, help accelerate our economic recovery, reduce the risk of lockdowns, and safely allow New Zealand’s borders to begin re-opening next year,” Ardern said. “The first step in our plan is speeding up the vaccination process to ensure everyone is at least partially vaccinated as soon as possible to reduce the risk and impact of delta entering the country.”
Since the outset of the pandemic over a year ago, New Zealand’s border has been closed to foreigners and all returning residents have been required to enter a managed isolation facility for two weeks. The system has caught imported cases, but there have been no delta infections in the community so far. A quarantine-free travel bubble with neighbor Australia was suspended last month due to delta-driven outbreaks there.
New Zealand’s push to eliminate the virus has paid dividends, with just 26 Covid deaths and life within its borders relatively normal. The country has scored consistently well on Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking, which measures the best and worst places to be amid the pandemic. After some early lockdowns, community transmission has been scarce thanks to the nation’s isolation and the zero-tolerance border and testing regime.
But a slow vaccination rollout — just 23% of the population is covered, versus more than 50% in the U.S. — has left it vulnerable to an outbreak of the delta strain, which has forced large parts of Australia back into lockdown. At the same time, Ardern has been under pressure to present a road map out of “fortress New Zealand,” with the restrictions decimating its tourism industry and leading to shortages of migrant labor.
Ardern said the government will make the Pfizer Inc. vaccine available to all adults sooner than previously planned and increase the gap between doses to six weeks from three. This will allow more New Zealanders to get their first dose sooner and ensure as many as possible are at least partially vaccinated in coming months, she said.
From Sept. 1, all eligible ages will be able to book a vaccination appointment.
The government will also use the second half of 2021 to conduct a self-isolation trial for vaccinated New Zealanders in preparation for the gradual resumption of quarantine-free travel. From the first quarter of 2022, new risk-based border settings will be introduced that establish low, medium and high-risk pathways into the country.
The pathway a traveler takes will be based on the risk associated with where they are coming from and their vaccination status, and each pathway will have testing and isolation requirements proportionate to that risk.
A low-risk pathway will permit quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travelers; a medium-risk pathway would include a combination of self-isolation and/or reduced managed isolation for vaccinated travelers, while a high-risk pathway will require a full 14 days in quarantine and testing regardless of vaccination status.
“This individual risk-based approach requires new systems to be set up,” Ardern said. “We will use the remainder of 2021 to continue to prepare for the operation of borders under this system.”
The government is investigating methods to rapidly test airport arrivals for Covid, she said.
New Zealand joins other so-called Covid Zero economies — places that have targeted suppression of the virus within their borders — in laying out a framework for exiting the strategy. While effective in eliminating the virus, the approach relies on continued isolation, which nations with significant tourism sectors like New Zealand can’t afford long term.
Singapore, which has also gone spells Covid-free and tightly polices its borders, says it will start to ease curbs once it hits 80% of the population vaccinated, while Australia has indicated a rough timetable to open up in the first quarter of 2022, a plan that may be complicated by the current resurgence.
Meanwhile, China, the biggest adherent of Covid Zero, is doubling down on the strategy after delta got past its defenses and seeds flareups there. The country is not expected to start opening up until mid-to-late next year.