WELLINGTON - New Zealand will end its strict coronavirus lockdown measures and restore more freedoms only when 90% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday.
Once the poster child for stamping out COVID-19, New Zealand has been unable to beat an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 centred in Auckland, forcing Ardern to abandon her elimination strategy and switch to living with the virus.
Ardern said reaching a 90% inoculation rate at every District Health Board in the country would make the South Pacific nation one of the most vaccinated countries in the world. Some 68% of eligible New Zealanders are fully vaccinated and 86% have had one dose.
"Ultimately we have balanced the desire to re-open quickly while continuing to keep people safe," Ardern said at a news conference in the capital Wellington.
When the vaccine target is reached, the country will move into a new traffic-light system to manage outbreaks in regions. Vaccine certificate will be central to the new system, which will also use three settings - green, orange and red - to manage fresh outbreaks and cases, Ardern said.
"Fully vaccinated people will be able to reconnect with family and friends, go to bars and restaurants and do the things they love with greater certainty and confidence," said Ardern.
The new system would also mean an end to nationwide lockdowns.
"Instead we have the vaccines to create a level of safety and armour, and there will be much more predictability," she said.
New Zealand enforced the tightest pandemic restrictions among OECD nations, but pressure is mounting on Ardern to ease curbs as relatively small but persistent numbers of cases continue to plague its biggest city.
New Zealand reported a record 129 COVID-19 cases on Friday, a daily record for the third time this week, despite Auckland remaining in lockdown for over two months. Looser restrictions are in place in most of the rest of the country of 5 million.
The number of cases in the current outbreak reached 2,389 and New Zealand has recorded 28 coronavirus related deaths so far in the pandemic.
Authorities have warned infections are likely to trend higher until vaccination numbers rise.
Opposition National Party leader Judith Collins said the "hurdle" of 90% vaccination condemns every New Zealander to months of more lockdowns and uncertainty.
"It is great we now have 86% of Kiwis who have had at least one dose. But the reality is this last 4% will be the hardest to achieve," Collins said.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Sandra Maler) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; +6448028163; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com; Twitter: https://twitter.com/Journopraveen))