New Zealand on Monday abandoned its long-term strategy to eliminate the coronavirus amid an ongoing outbreak of the Delta virus, and will instead look to live with the virus and control its spread as the vaccination rate rises.
The Pacific nation was among a handful of nations that cut Covid-19 cases to zero last year and remained largely virus-free until an outbreak of the highly contagious delta type in mid-August, thwarting efforts to stem transmission.
“With the outbreak and delta going back to zero, it’s very difficult,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference in a major policy shift.
“This is a change in the approach we have always done over time. The Delta outbreak has accelerated that shift. Vaccines will support her,” she said.
Ms Ardern said the lockdown affecting 1.7 million people in the largest city, Auckland, would be scaled back in phases, with some freedoms introduced from Wednesday.
The change in trend came as the country recorded 29 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, bringing the total in the current outbreak to 1,357. Most cases are in Auckland, which has been on lockdown for nearly 50 days.
Amid mounting pressure, Ardern said her strategy was never to have no cases of the virus, but to eradicate the virus aggressively. She said the strict lockdowns will end once 90 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated.
To date, about two million New Zealanders have been fully vaccinated, or about 48 percent of the eligible population.
Mr Ardern said the delta variable looked like “probes that were very difficult to shake”.
“Obviously a long period of tight restrictions didn’t make us eliminate any cases. But it’s OK…Exclusion was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do. So we can start changing the way we do things,” she said.
People in Auckland will be able to leave their homes to socialize with others outdoors from Wednesday, with a maximum of 10 people, as well as go to beaches and parks.
Worldwide deaths linked to Covid-19 exceeded 5 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally, with non-vaccinated people particularly exposed to the virulent Delta strain.
Ardern used New Zealand’s strict lockdowns and geographic isolation to stamp out the coronavirus last year, a feat that helped her secure a historic election victory.
But the slowdown in vaccine rollout and the continued outbreak of the Delta virus this year have dented its popularity.
Aucklanders turned to social media after the announcement, with many cheering the decision while others expressed concern.
University of Auckland professor Sean Hendy, who has been a model for the spread of Covid-19, said the new freedoms are likely to lead to greater spread and higher numbers of cases in the coming weeks.
“The government is hoping that any growth in the resulting cases will be slow enough that vaccination can precede an outbreak, before it puts significant strain on our testing and tracing system, not to mention our hospitals,” Hendy said.
Political parties on both sides criticized the move.
“Jacinda Ardern has no answers to the problems that she and her government have promised us and are under control. It is very clear that the situation is now out of control and is getting worse every day,” National Opposition Leader Judith Collins said in a statement.
The Greens, a partner in Ardern’s Labor coalition, said the move put vulnerable communities and children at risk. – Reuters
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