New Zealand will gradually reopen its international borders next year, but will maintain a zero-tolerance policy towards the spread of the Corona virus as criticism of the country’s response to the pandemic mounts.
On Thursday, the government said it would also speed up the rollout of the vaccine, which is among the slowest in the developed world.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was too early to abandon the virus eradication policy, which has resulted in one of the lowest death rates and the best economic performance in the world.
“The key to that is maintaining our disposal strategy,” Ms Ardern said. “The advice is clear: If we open our borders now, we will lose the freedoms and advantages we have gained.”
She added: “If we give up on our elimination approach too soon, there is no going back, and we could see significant spread here like some countries abroad who are experiencing their early openness in rolling out vaccination.”
It remains unclear exactly when and how the borders will reopen, but the government has said it will begin to trial home quarantine for some vaccinated citizens from October. Ms Ardern said the lockdowns will continue to be a tool to “crush” the virus when a case of Covid-19 emerges in the community.
Vaccinated travelers from “low-risk” countries will likely be the first to be allowed entry without facing a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Ms Ardern has been praised for her early decision to close New Zealand’s borders and impose lockdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Only 26 people have died from Covid-19 and daily life in New Zealand has returned to normal, with no need to wear masks or social distancing restrictions at sports or other events.
But as the rest of the world begins to reopen and international travel resumes, Wellington faces a difficult decision about how to ease its border restrictions without being overwhelmed by the highly contagious viral delta variant.
Many vital industries and the healthcare sector, which rely heavily on immigrant labour, face acute skills shortages and are pressing to travel without quarantining vaccinated travelers.
This week, midwives are on strike at hospitals to demand better pay and conditions, arguing that they face crisis-level staffing shortages. “Emergency departments are regularly overstretched, and many have been put on red or black alerts this year,” said Keri Noko, co-chair of Nurses New Zealand.
“This enormous pressure is draining our nurses and causing many to leave the profession or move to practice where they are better paid, such as Australia.”
The icy pace of New Zealand’s vaccination campaign has complicated efforts to reopen borders, with only about 17 percent of the population fully vaccinated.
This has contributed to a sharp decline in public support for Ardern’s Labor Party, with a Newshub-Reid Research poll showing support for it at 43 percent, a drop of nearly 10 percent since May.
Grant Duncan, a professor of political science at Massey University in Auckland, said the slow rollout of the vaccine has affected the government’s popularity and that reopening the strategy would be vital to their political fortunes. “If they screw this up, it will destroy political capital,” he said.
On Thursday, Ms Ardern said the vaccination process would be reconfigured to enable all adults to reserve their first dose by September 1.
Nick Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, warned that if vaccination levels do not rise quickly, the reopening strategy could fail, as virus outbreaks further burden the health care system.
“This could force the government into costly suburban or city-wide shutdowns,” he said. “Even if vaccination levels are high, outbreaks of diseases involving vaccinated people may persist.” Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021
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