WELLINGTON - New Zealand on Monday abandoned its strategy of eliminating coronavirus, easing some COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in its biggest city Auckland, and will instead look to live with the virus while controlling its spread.
The Pacific nation was among just a handful of countries to bring COVID-19 cases down to zero last year and largely stayed virus-free until an outbreak of the highly infections Delta variant in mid-August frustrated efforts to stamp out transmission.
"With this outbreak and Delta the return to zero is incredibly difficult," Ardern told a news conference.
"This is a change in approach we were always going to make over time. Our Delta outbreak has accelerated this transition. Vaccines will support it," she said.
Health authorities reported 29 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, taking the total number in the current outbreak to 1,357. The majority of the cases are in Auckland, which has been in lockdown for nearly 50 days.
Amid mounting pressure, Ardern has said her strategy was never to have zero cases, but to aggressively stamp out the virus. She said strict lockdowns will end once 90% of the eligible population is vaccinated.
"It's clear that a long period of heavy restrictions has not got us to zero cases. But its ok...elimination was important because we didn't have vaccinations. Now we do. So we can begin to change the way we do things," she said.
People in Auckland will be able to leave their homes to connect with loved ones outdoors from Wednesday, with a limit of 10 people.
Early childhood education will return and people can also move around for recreation, but retail, hospitality and offices will still remain shut.
Ardern said remaining restrictions in Auckland will be eased in phases.