New Zealand to end quarantine stays and reopen its borders

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand's government on Thursday said it will end its quarantine requirements for incoming travelers and reopen its borders, a change welcomed by thousands of citizens abroad who have endured long waits to return home.

Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has enacted some of the world's strictest border controls. Most incoming travelers need to spend 10 days in a quarantine hotel room run by the military, a requirement that has created a bottleneck at the border.

The measures were initially credited with saving thousands of lives and allowed New Zealand to eliminate or control several outbreaks of the coronavirus.

But, increasingly, the border controls have been viewed as out-of-step in a world where the virus is becoming endemic, and in a country where the omicron variant is already spreading. The bottleneck forced many New Zealanders abroad to enter a lottery-style system to try and secure a spot in quarantine and passage home.

The shortcomings of the system were highlighted over the past week by pregnant New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis, who was stranded in Afghanistan after New Zealand officials initially rejected her application to return home to give birth. After international publicity, officials backed down and offered her a spot in quarantine, which she has accepted.

The border changes mean that vaccinated New Zealanders returning from Australia will no longer need to go into quarantine from the end of this month, and vaccinated New Zealanders returning from the rest of the world can skip quarantine by mid-March. They will still be required to isolate at home.

However, most tourists will need to wait until October before they can enter the country without a quarantine stay. And anybody who isn't vaccinated will still be required to go through quarantine.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she knows many people associate the border controls with heartache but they have undeniably saved lives.

“There is no question that for New Zealand, it has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” she said. “But the reason that it is right up there as one of the toughest things we have experienced is, in part, because large-scale loss of life is not.”

She said the controls “meant not everyone could come home when they wanted to. But it also meant that COVID could not come in when it wanted to, either.”

Ardern said the restrictions had allowed New Zealand to build its defenses against the virus by achieving high levels of vaccination while also keeping the economy running strongly.

About 77% of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, according to Our World in Data. That rises to 93% among those aged 12 and over, according to health officials.

New Zealand has reported just 53 virus deaths among its population of 5 million.

New Zealand's economy did return to growth quickly after a pandemic dip, and unemployment decreased to 3.2% in the latest quarter, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1986. But the government has also increased borrowing sharply and home prices have skyrocketed.

Opposition leader Christopher Luxon said the reopening of the border was welcome news, and his National Party had long called for the government to “end the lottery of human misery.”

Ardern said it was a first step toward normality.

“There was life before, and now life with COVID, but that also means there will be life after COVID too, a life where we have adapted, where we have some normality back, and where the weather can once again take its rightful place as our primary topic of conversation," Ardern said. "We are well on our way to reaching that destination. We’re just not quite there yet.”