October 5, 2021 | By Bronwen Largier

As New Zealand continues to record a steady trickle of cases after almost 50 days of lockdown in Auckland – the main source of cases – the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a three-phase plan for easing restrictions in the nation’s most populous city.

“Right at the beginning, we said Delta was a game-changer, and it has proven to be so,” said Ardern.

“It has been more infectious and more persistent than the previous variants of COVID-19 that we have faced. What we have called a long tail feels more like a tentacle that has been incredibly hard to shake.”

The phased plan begins with an easing of restrictions from midnight tonight, allowing up to 10 people from two households to gather outside and allowing free travel around Auckland for recreation.

The second and third phase have no dates attached to them, but will be considered for implementation on a weekly basis, starting next Monday.

The second phase will see retail open with restrictions, as well as facilities like public pools, libraries and museums. Up to 25 people will be allowed to gather outdoors.

In phase three, hospitality venues can open with limits of 50 patrons. “Event facilities” can also reopen in phase three – although only cinemas, casinos, and theatres have been mentioned – with a maximum of 50 people, two metres social distancing and mask wearing. Close contact venues like hairdressers will also be allowed to reopen.

The announcement of the reopening roadmap effectively ends New Zealand pursuit of its COVID-19 elimination strategy.

“As you can see with this outbreak and with Delta, the return to zero is incredibly difficult and our restrictions alone are not enough to achieve it quickly,” said Ardern.

“In fact, for this outbreak, it’s clear that long periods of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases, but that is OK. Elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we do, so we can begin to change the way we do things.”

Ardern also touched on the return of events, flagging the likelihood of mandatory vaccination and that the government is in talks with the industry.

“You may have noticed that these three phases don’t bring everything back online, like large-scale events in Auckland,” she said.

“That’s because at the conclusion of this three-stage transition period, we will likely move to a framework that reflects a more vaccinated population and the ability to use vaccine certificates as a tool in the near future to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, especially in crowded indoor settings. This is our best pathway back to gatherings.

“We’re currently talking to our events sector and hospitality around what this framework looks like, and we’ll present the details on that plan next week, well in advance for any implementation of that framework, so that people can prepare.”

The Prime Minister has previously indicated a 90 percent vaccine threshold will see the country return to greater normality. New Zealand recorded 24 new community acquired cases today. The latest vaccination data has 79 percent of New Zealand’s eligible population with a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and 49 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated.