New Zealand will open its international borders to displaced residents, allowing them to return to the country from January 2022.
The gradual lifting of harsh border restrictions was announced by the government on Wednesday, and will come almost two years after they were imposed as a part of the measures to keep out the Covid-19 pandemic.
While displaced residents will be allowed to return from January, tourists will have to wait till April to enter the Pacific nation.
Completely vaccinated New Zealanders stuck in Australia will be allowed to return from 16 January without staying in quarantine, and from other countries after 13 February.
Other international travellers will be allowed to enter the country from 30 April and would have to self-isolate for seven days upon arrival. Complete vaccinations for such travellers will be mandatory.
Other measures such as self-isolation, negative pre-departure tests, proof of being fully vaccinated and a Covid test on arrival will be put in place.
“A phased approach to reconnecting with the world is the safest approach to ensure risk is carefully managed. This reduces any potential impacts on vulnerable communities and the New Zealand health system,” Chris Hipkins, the country’s Covid response minister, said in a statement.
He added that the government had made difficult tradeoffs to keep New Zealanders as safe as possible through the pandemic.
“We acknowledge that it has been very tough. Families have been separated. People have found themselves having to shelter in places they did not expect to stay for prolonged periods of time. We are acutely aware of the impact that these restrictions have had on individuals’ lives and their livelihoods,” Mr Hipkins said.
Some people who will finally be able to come back to their country expressed happiness on social media.
“I get to hug my mum again,” wrote Lincoln Colling, a cognitive scientist.
Curtis S Chin, a former US envoy to the Asian Development Bank, shared a gif from The Lord of the Rings franchise that was shot in the country that said: “I am going on an adventure”.
Hans Frauenlob, a curler from New Zealand, said: “I can now work at the Winter Olympics and actually return to New Zealand afterwards. Hallelujah”.
The country had imposed one of the strictest lockdowns and border measures since the onset of the pandemic in 2020 to curb the spread of disease.
Several stranded New Zealanders have pointed out the severe effect of the lockdown on their mental health, job losses, family illnesses and had criticised the country’s emergency requests process that allowed a highly limited number of people to return to their home country.
“I love my country, but after this, I’m not sure anymore – I feel like a man without a nation or a home to go back to – I feel abandoned by everyone,” one person had told The Independent.
While the government largely succeeded in preventing a large-scale outbreak through its zero-tolerance approach, the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus threatened to undermine these measures, as several outbreaks struck the country on different occasions.
Strict lockdown restrictions, that at one time affected 1.7 million people in the country’s biggest city Auckland, were scaled back in phases in October, even as Delta variant cases continued to emerge. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern admitted the country was phasing out its “zero Covid” approach.
The government announced earlier this week that bars, restaurants and gyms could reopen in Auckland from 2 December.
“The hard truth is that Delta is here and it is not going away. And while no country to date has been able to eliminate Delta completely once it’s arrived, New Zealand is in a better position than most to tackle it,” Ms Ardern had said.
About 69 per cent of New Zealanders are fully vaccinated, including 84 per cent of those aged 12 and over. The country has recorded over 10,000 Covid cases and 40 deaths.