Ms Ardern emphasised that New Zealand needed to continue to “contain and control the virus as much as possible, while we make our transition from a place where we only use heavy restrictions to a place where we use vaccines in everyday public health measures.”
New Zealand will abandon its strategy to completely eliminate Covid-19 and will instead adopt a method that controls the spread of infection, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
“With this outbreak and Delta, the return to zero [Covid cases] is incredibly difficult,” Ms Ardern said.
The current elimination strategy will be phased out and another model that takes into consideration vaccination rates shall be adopted, she said. A three-stage roadmap shall be put in place to help bring Auckland out of its lockdown, the prime minister added.
“Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines,” she added. “Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things. We have more options, and there’s good cause for us to feel optimistic about the future, but we cannot rush.”
Ms Ardern told reporters: “This is a change in approach we were always going to make over time. Our Delta outbreak has accelerated this transition. Vaccines will support it.”
Only about 48 per cent of New Zealand’s eligible population has been fully vaccinated so far, according to the latest available health ministry figures. The relatively slow and sluggish start of inoculations was criticised by experts and opposition leaders in the country.
Ms Ardern said that the Delta variant felt like “a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake.”
New Zealand had largely eliminated Covid last year and had remained virus-free for months. It reported its first case since February on 17 August, prompting a strict lockdown. But there have been more than 1,000 cases, including a community spread, since then.
On Monday, New Zealand registered 29 new cases of Covid-19, taking the current outbreak numbers to 1,357. Overall, since the pandemic began, there have been 4,025 cases of the coronavirus in New Zealand. The country has seen just 27 Covid deaths.
The prime minister also said that the lockdown in Auckland, which is affecting as many as 1.7 million people, will be scaled back in phases and some restrictions will be lifted from Wednesday. Auckland has been under lockdown for nearly 50 days now.
Ms Ardern added that the strict lockdowns will only end when about 90 per cent of the country is fully vaccinated.
She said that Aucklanders will be able to leave their homes to connect with loved ones outdoors from Wednesday, with no more than two households at a time and up to a maximum of 10 people. Early childhood education will return for all, beach visits and hunting will also be allowed.
Local reports said that in the next step of relaxations, retail stores and public facilities such as pools and zoos can open. The number of people who can meet outdoors will be increased to 25.
In the third phase of relaxations, the hospitality sector will open, and the number of people at a gathering can be 50. Businesses such as hairdressers will also be able to open as long as they use masks and follow physical distancing norms.