NZ eases quarantine but won’t welcome tourists yet

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Wellington: New Zealand will gradually loosen border quarantine requirements, which have been among the toughest in the world throughout the pandemic.

But while the changes will make it easier for New Zealanders stranded abroad to return home, officials gave no date for when tourists might be welcomed back. That change is likely still months away.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said that from next month, most people arriving in the country would need to spend seven days in a quarantine hotel run by the military, half the previous requirement.

A giant sign painted near the main runway of the Wellington International Airport greets travellers returning home in Wellington.Credit:Getty Images

He said some new arrivals from low-risk Pacific island countries could skip quarantine altogether and isolate at home.

He said the new rules were an interim step ahead of broader reopening measures that would be gradually introduced once more than 90 per cent of people aged 12 and over were fully vaccinated. So far, 72 per cent of eligible people have had both shots.

New Zealand’s COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins speaks during a press conference in Wellington on Thursday.Credit:Stuff/AP

The change follows a growing outcry from New Zealanders who have been trying to return home but have been unable to secure spots in the quarantine system. Some have resorted to legal action.

“I acknowledge that there’s a lot of pressure there. My message to the people who are keen to get back into New Zealand is: there isn’t very long to wait now,” Hipkins said. “And encouraging their fellow New Zealanders to get fully vaccinated will help us get to that point faster.”

Hipkins said he expected most new arrivals would be able to isolate at home by sometime in the first quarter of next year. He said the government’s priority was returning New Zealanders and those with valid visas.

“Tourists are more of a challenge, in that they don’t necessarily have somewhere to isolate on arrival,” Hipkins said. “But we’ll work our way through all of that.”

A traffic light is taped up along a street at Newmarket, Auckland, on Thursday. The city remains in lockdown.Credit:Getty Images

Political opponents said the changes didn’t go far enough and that fully vaccinated travellers returning home posed little risk.

Before the pandemic began, more than 3 million tourists visited New Zealand each year, and the industry was among the nation’s largest earners.

For more than a year after the pandemic began, the strict quarantine system helped it remain almost completely virus-free and allowed life to return to normal.

But an outbreak of the more contagious delta variant in Auckland more than two months ago has proved impossible to extinguish, forcing officials to abandon their previous zero-tolerance approach in favour of a suppression strategy.

With the virus continuing to spread in Auckland, which remains in lockdown, the border requirements seemed outdated.

Thursday’s announcement came after officials said two people in the city of Christchurch had caught the virus after one returned from Auckland where 83 new cases were recorded. There was no immediate evidence the virus was spreading further in the capital.


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