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In a speech she made this morning, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the southwest Pacific nation plans to start reopening to vaccinated travelers from early 2022.

This comes as pretty big news, considering the unyielding border controls that New Zealand’s government has maintained throughout the pandemic.


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Reopening from COVID-19

“We cannot keep border restrictions on forever, and to be absolutely clear we don’t want to do that either, and neither do the experts we talk to. Border closures were only ever a temporary measure in order to keep COVID out before a vaccine was developed and administered,” said Ardern.

“So long as the scientific evidence shows we can safely transition from a border defense to the individual armor of the vaccine, then that is the direction we will go,” she added.

Ardern has previously made it clear that international travelers wouldn’t be allowed to visit New Zealand until COVID-19 vaccines were proven to effectively prevent the spread of the virus and all Kiwis had been inoculated.

In preparation for a phased reopening next year, Ardern announced that the government would be working to accelerate New Zealand’s COVID-19 vaccination program. Despite its success in other aspects, New Zealand, as well as Australia, has so far struggled with its vaccine distribution. Less than 20 percent of Kiwis over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated, while 23 percent of Aussies over 16 have received both doses.

CNN Travel reported that part of New Zealand’s reopening strategy involves implementing a tiered, risk-based system for foreign arrivals, with rules dependent upon their country of origin. Only vaccinated travelers will be granted entry in any case, but those coming from high-risk countries would still need to quarantine for two weeks in a managed facility; while those from medium-risk countries might be allowed to self-isolate or have reduced quarantine; and those from low-risk nations would be allowed to enter without quarantining at all.

With the planned reopening still at least six months off, the government hasn’t yet determined which countries would be classified into each risk category. While the plan represents a significant softening of New Zealand’s strict border policies, it still sounds fairly harsh on vaccinated foreign travelers coming from anywhere other than low-risk areas. But, it’s this uncompromising approach that’s led to its extraordinarily low COVID-19 numbers.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, photographed in 2019. (photo via Flickr/nevada.halbert)

“Principle number one will remain…maintaining our elimination strategy to stamp out the virus, so we can maintain our hard-won gains and keep our options open,” Ardern said. “A careful approach that says, there won’t be zero cases, but when there is one in the community, we crush it, is the best way to maintain our normal lives while we monitor the twists and turns of COVID-19 over the next six months.”

New Zealand boasts one of the lowest infection rates and death tallies among all of the world’s developed nations. Fewer than 3,000 cases and 26 related deaths have been recorded among its population of five million. Ardern partially credited the government’s swift action in closing the country’s borders to all non-residents promptly upon COVID-19’s elevation to pandemic status in March 2020.

With few exceptions, they’ve remained sealed tightly ever since. Currently, those who do enter from most foreign countries must comply with pre-departure testing requirements and quarantine for a full 14 days in a managed facility.

New Zealand does maintain limited agreements for quarantine-free travel with neighboring Australia and certain Pacific islands, but—given the recent Delta variant outbreak in Australia that’s sent Sydney and Melbourne into major lockdowns—some of those policies have been suspended.

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