WELLINGTON – New Zealand abandoned its coronavirus elimination strategy on Monday amid a persistent Delta outbreak, and will instead seek to live with the virus and control its spread as vaccinations increase.
The Pacific nation was among a handful of countries that reduced COVID-19 cases to zero last year and remained largely virus-free until an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant in mid-August frustrated efforts to eradicate transmission.
“With this outbreak and Delta, going back to zero is incredibly difficult,” Ardern said at a press conference.
“It’s a change in approach that we were always going to make over time. Our Delta epidemic has accelerated this transition. The vaccines will support it, ”she said.
Ardern said a lockdown affecting 1.7 million people in Auckland’s largest city will be reduced in phases, with certain freedoms introduced from Wednesday.
The change in leadership came as the country recorded 29 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the total number of the current outbreak to 1,357. Most of the cases are in Auckland, which has been on lockdown for nearly 50 days.
Amid the mounting pressure, Ardern said his strategy was never to have no cases, but to aggressively eradicate the virus. She said the strict closures will end once 90% of the eligible population is vaccinated.
Around two million New Zealanders have so far been fully immunized, or around 48% of the eligible population.
Ardern said the Delta variant looked like “a tentacle that was incredibly difficult to shake.”
“It is clear that a long period of strong restrictions has not allowed us to reach zero cases. But that’s okay… elimination was important because we didn’t have vaccines. Now we are doing it. So we can start to change the way we do things, ”she said.
Auckland residents will be able to leave their homes to connect with loved ones outside from Wednesday, up to a limit of 10 people. People can go to beaches and parks, and also go hunting, Ardern said.
The Aucklanders took to social media after the announcement, with many applauding the move while others expressed concern.
“I think if we had had 1-2 unrelated cases per day and / or no infection in the community and no spread outside of Auckland (and a higher vaccination), I would be cheering right now,” said an Aucklander on Twitter.
Political parties on both sides criticized the move.
“Jacinda Ardern has no answers to the problems that she and her government have promised us are under control. The situation is now very clearly out of control and is getting worse by the day, ”National Opposition Party Leader Judith Collins said in a statement.
Ardern’s Labor coalition partner the Greens said the move endangered the safety of vulnerable communities and children.
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