New Zealand is re-opening to the world after shuttering its borders almost two years ago in one of the strongest and harshest defences against the pandemic.
While the nation of five million has suffered just 53 deaths due to the pandemic. ten of thousands of expatriate New Zealanders have been stranded overseas, unable to gain a slot in the nation’s limited mandatory quarantine system.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern, under increasing pressure from frustrated New Zealanders and sliding in popularity, announced on Thursday that New Zealand’s largest diaspora – the 650,000 in Australia – will be able to return home from February 27.
They will no longer have to enter two weeks of expensive managed quarantine but instead will be required to self isolate for ten days.
Two weeks after the Australia-based arrivals, on March 13, vaccinated Kiwis in other parts of the world will be able to return under similar conditions, along with non-citizens on visas like skilled migrants. International students will be admitted from April.
New Zealand has the third-highest population diaspora in the OECD, behind Ireland and Luxembourg. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, around one million New Zealanders were living overseas.
Ardern confirmed the changes in a speech to a business audience in Auckland on Thursday morning.
Under step 4 of the plan, Australian citizens are expected to be able to cross the Tasman in July when the country opens further to non-citizens from visa-free countries.
“Step 4 sees the biggest expansion yet, and includes our Australian cousins and all other visitors and other visitors and business travellers who can normally enter New Zealand without a visa,” said Ardern.
Step 5 begins in October and includes all other visitors and students who require a visa to enter New Zealand, with normal visa processing resuming.
The prime minister admitted the nation’s extremely limited, mandatory quarantine system had caused heartache.
“The anguish of MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) has been real, and heartbreaking. But the choice to use it undeniably saved lives, “ said Ardern.
“MIQ 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,” she said.
Deaths per million from Covid-19 in New Zealand are just over 10. This compares to 2300 per million in the UK and more than 150 per million in Australia.
The Ardern government has previously announced two border reopening plans but abandoned both in the face of global outbreaks of the pandemic’s later variants, first Delta, then Omicron.
New Zealand’s closed border has slashed the supply of imported labour creating severe worker shortages that are driving up wages and fueling the fastest inflation rise in more than 30 years.
Free rapid tests will be given to returnees as they self isolate to monitor for Covid as the country moves through its Omicron outbreak and adjusts to living with the virus.
“That gives us the best chance of identifying cases that have come across the border,” Ardern said.
“The strong advice from our public health officials is that we still need it to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case,” she said.