New Zealand to begin easing strict COVID border restrictions this month

New Zealand will begin easing some of the world’s toughest pandemic border restrictions this month, but will not fully reopen until October, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Thursday.

Ardern announced a five-step plan to reconnect New Zealand to the rest of the world, starting with waiving hotel quarantine requirements for its nationals stranded abroad by the pandemic.

“It’s time to move again,” said Ardern, who has recently come under pressure to ease border policies that have remained largely unchanged since the COVID-19 crisis began nearly two years ago.

“Families and friends need to reunite, our businesses need skills to grow, exporters need to travel to build new relationships. »

Ardern said New Zealanders in Australia could return home and self-isolate, rather than self-quarantine, from February 27, followed two weeks later by Kiwis elsewhere in the world.

The option will then gradually be offered to other groups such as skilled migrants, international students, Australians and eventually all vaccinated foreign nationals.

This will involve international arrivals self-isolating for 10 days instead of undergoing a 10-day hotel quarantine monitored by New Zealand military personnel.

Only 800 rooms per month are available under the current system, with demand regularly exceeding supply tenfold.

Many New Zealanders have criticized it as being too harsh on international arrivals, with business groups saying it is contributing to a labor shortage and crippling the tourism industry.

There have been many stories of fully vaccinated New Zealanders based abroad unable to return home to watch loved ones die or give birth, such as pregnant journalist Charlotte Bellis.

Bellis prompted a rare about-face from officials this week when she said her initial failure to secure a quarantine spot left her with no choice but to deliver her baby in Afghanistan under the regime. of the Taliban.

Ardern said the quarantine system – known locally as MIQ – had been a key part of New Zealand’s success in containing the coronavirus, with just 53 deaths recorded out of a population of five million.

“The anguish of MIQ has been real and heartbreaking, but the choice to use it has undeniably saved lives,” she said.

New Zealand originally planned to start easing border controls last month and fully reopen in April, but delayed the move with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Ardern said New Zealand’s high vaccination rate – almost 95% of the population is double-bitten, with a third also receiving a booster – meant change was now possible.

The Prime Minister said 92% of adult Kiwis should have a booster when the changes begin at the end of February.

The quarantine system will not be completely dismantled as it will still be needed to accommodate unvaccinated international arrivals.

Air New Zealand said it was “delighted” with the changes and was set to operate more than 300 flights between New Zealand and Australia in March.

“(This is) incredibly exciting news for New Zealanders overseas,” spokeswoman Leanne Geraghty said.

“To be certain that they will land home and be reunited with their friends and whanau (family) in just over three weeks will be a relief.”

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