New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced they will ramp up vaccinations in order to start a phased re-opening of its borders starting early next year. File Photo by David Rowland/EPA-EFE
Aug. 12 (UPI) -- New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced plans Thursday to re-open its borders to quarantine-free travel starting as early as next year.
Ardern made the announcement during a speech at the Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World Forum where she outlined steps the country needs to take for the phased resumption of international travel during the first quarter of 2022.
She said to achieve this goal, vaccinations are key and they will ramp up inoculation campaigns staring immediately with moving forward the eligibility dates for all age groups to ensure everyone able to receive the vaccine can schedule a vaccination appointment by Sept. 1.
Health officials will also from Thursday delay the administration of the second COVID-19 vaccine shot from 21 days to six weeks to ensure more citizens have at least partial immunity as soon as possible.
This decision, she said, is not only to aid in the reopening of their borders but to protect citizens against the fast-spreading Delta variant.
"I have previously said that the border has acted like a collective armor for New Zealand protecting us against the virus. The trick with vaccination is to move to each of us having an individual armor, meaning we need to rely less, or at least not only, on border settings. Vaccines are the game changer in this pandemic," She said. "But for them to be successful, we need as many people as possible vaccinated."
In a statement released by her office on Thursday, Ardern said that being inoculated against the virus is "the number one thing" people can do to protect against COVID-19, accelerate the nation's economic recovery, reduce the risk of lockdowns and allow New Zealand to open its borders next year.
The archipelago nation of 5 million people has seen comparatively low numbers of infections and deaths amid the pandemic as it enforced strict and lengthy lockdown early on followed by strict border regulations.
As of Thursday, its ministry of health has reported 2,913 cases, including 26 deaths.
More than 848,000 New Zealanders have been fully vaccinated with a further 1.44 million having received at least one shot, Ardern said during the forum, adding that once "reasonable coverage" of the population has been achieved they will open their borders to countries that have been grouped according to risk.
Those from high-risk countries will be subjected to a 14-day quarantine and testing while those who arrive from medium-risk nations will have to undergo self-isolation, reduced quarantine or a combination of both. Vaccinated travelers from low-risk countries will be permitted entry without quarantine.
Factors to consider a countries risk include the number of cases, prevalence of variants, vaccination rates and New Zealand's "confidence" in the country's strategies for managing outbreaks, she said, adding this new system will be applied to both New Zealanders traveling overseas and tourists entering the country.
"Our ultimate goal is to get to quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travelers," she said. "And what you can see from today is our direction and ambition is clear. But we're simply not in a position to fully re-open just yet. When we move we will be careful and deliberate, because we want to move with confidence and with as much certainty as possible."