New Zealand is to permit fully vaccinated international travellers into the country from next year, amid a gradual easing of its strict border restrictions that have been in place for more than 18 months due to the pandemic. Fully vaccinated citizens, expats and tourists will be able to enter the country in three stages, Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said during a press conference last week. The border will first open to New Zealand citizens and residents traveling from neighbouring Australia on January 16, before expanding to include New Zealanders and the rest of the world on February 13. Fully vaccinated visitors from all other countries, except those deemed “high risk,” can visit the Pacific Island nation from April 30, Hipkins affirmed. “A phased approach to reconnecting with the world is the safest approach to ensure the risk is carefully managed,” he noted. “It reduces the potential impacts on vulnerable communities and the New Zealand health system.” He went on to say some restrictions would remain for the time being. “We will eventually reach a point where people will be able to move much more freely across the border and those periods of self-isolation won’t be required,” he said. “We’re not at that point yet.” An estimated 1 million New Zealanders live abroad, with nearly 600,000 in Australia, and “many of New Zealand’s 5 million residents likely have at least one friend or relative living abroad, meaning some haven’t seen their loved ones in almost two years.
Writing a blog for Sky, Sharon Marris, a New Zealander news correspondent in the UK, says: “When it closed its international borders, it locked many thousands of overseas-based Kiwis out of their own country. Today’s announcement will be met with a huge amount of relief but there will also be frustration that the changes are still so far away.” She added: “New Zealanders who travel or live overseas have always felt safe in the knowledge that our passports mean we can go home if things turn sour. New Zealand’s border policies during the pandemic, have shattered that.” In recent months, the country has struggled to beat back the highly-infectious Delta strain of the virus, forcing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to switch from a total Covid elimination plan to pushing for higher vaccination rates and treating the virus as endemic.