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New Zealand to gradually reopen to the world next year

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a roadmap Thursday for the staggered reopening of its borders while maintaining a COVID-19 elimination strategy.

Why it matters: New Zealand has recorded some of the lowest coronavirus numbers in the world, reporting fewer than 2,900 infections and 26 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began. It's detected no community cases for 166 days, containing the virus to managed quarantine facilities.

  • The country effectively closed its border to non-residents in March last year as the pandemic spread across the world.
  • It has managed to largely keep the coronavirus out despite some residents returning to quarantine hotels from abroad infected with the Delta variant, health officials noted at a forum ahead of Ardern's announcement.

What she's saying: "Our ultimate goal is to get to quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travelers," Ardern said.

  • "A careful approach that says, there won't be zero cases, but when there is one in the community, we crush it, is the best way to maintain our normal lives while we monitor the twists and turns of COVID-19 over the next six months."

The big picture: Ardern's government has been criticized by opposition figures for a slower COVID-19 vaccine rollout than other countries. The prime minister has maintained that New Zealand must not participate in vaccine nationalism and wait for coronavirus-affected countries to conduct rollouts first.

  • Now, NZ is ramping up its rollout and roughly a third of New Zealand residents have received their first dose and over 20% their second of Pfizer — the only coronavirus vaccine currently in the the country.
  • By Sept. 1, everyone over 16 in the country can be inoculated against the virus and the government expects the vaccine to be offered to all residents by December.

What's next: The government will implement a phased risk-based system for travelers entering New Zealand from early 2022.

  • "Low-Risk, Medium-Risk and High-Risk travel pathways will be created, and which pathway a traveller takes will be based on the risk associated with where they are coming from and their vaccination status," per a statement from Ardern.
  • Under this system, vaccinated travelers from high-risk countries would need to quarantine in a managed facility for 14 days. Those from medium-risk countries would have a reduced quarantine period, or be allowed to self-isolate.
  • Travelers from low-risk countries would not have to quarantine upon arrival.

Of note: New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free "travel bubble" in April. But this was paused last month after Australia was hit by an outbreak of cases driven by the Delta variant.

  • Health officials noted at the forum that the elimination strategy didn't mean that the virus would be eradicated. Rather, officials would move to "stamp it out" when an outbreak arises.

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