From December 3, New Zealand will implement a new system for dealing with the coronavirus virus, lifting restrictions and allowing businesses to operate in the country’s largest city, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday.
Despite remaining largely COVID-19-free until August, New Zealand was unable to contain an outbreak of the highly infectious delta variant, forcing Ardern to abandon an elimination strategy and treat the virus as endemic.
Auckland, the country’s largest city, has been under lockdown for more than 90 days, though some restrictions have recently been relaxed.
“The hard truth is that Delta is here to stay and will not go away,” Ardern said in a statement. “However, New Zealand is well prepared to deal with it because of our high vaccination rates and our most recent safety measures, such as the traffic light system and the Vaccine Pass.”
The new system will categorize regions as red, orange, or green based on their level of COVID-19 exposure and vaccination rates. Auckland, the epicenter of the delta outbreak, will begin with a red alert, requiring face masks and restricting public gatherings.
Ardern stated that approximately 83 percent of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, with 88 percent having received their first shot.
The government previously stated that once 90 percent of the eligible population had been fully vaccinated, the country would abandon lockdown measures and switch to a traffic-light system to manage outbreaks.
In addition to its geographic isolation, New Zealand imposed some of the most stringent pandemic restrictions among OECD countries, limiting the spread of COVID-19 and allowing its economy to recover faster than many of its peers.
So far, the country of 5 million people has reported approximately 7,000 cases and 39 deaths.
Its international border remains closed, with no word on when it will reopen.
Due to border uncertainty, Air New Zealand announced on Monday that it has cancelled over 1,000 flights to neighboring Australia through the end of the year.
Following a new Delta outbreak in Australia, New Zealand ended quarantine-free travel with Australia in August and has kept its borders tightly sealed.
“This will be especially difficult news for families and friends who were hoping to catch up over Christmas,” said Leanne Geraghty, Chief Customer and Sales Officer at Air New Zealand.
“Our hands are tied until border restrictions are eased and the New Zealand government provides more clarity.”