WELLINGTON, New Zealand – The emergence of the Omicron version has not changed New Zealand’s plans to ease restrictions in Auckland and move the country into a new, more open phase of its pandemic response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
Bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland can reopen late Thursday, ending the coronavirus lockdown that began in August.
Across the country, a new “traffic light” system will end the lockdown, but require people to be fully vaccinated to guarantee participation in anything from getting a haircut to watching a concert.
New Zealand on Sunday banned travel from nine southern African countries in response to the Omicron threat. Ardern said he did not expect any further sanctions.
She said that as the new version is studied more, New Zealand will continue to do basic things like contact tracing, isolating infectious people and requiring the use of masks in some settings.
Ardern said Auckland and some other parts of the North Island would enter the new traffic light system under red lights because of the outbreak or low vaccination rates. Orange lights will enter other parts of the country.
She said the past few months were perhaps the toughest for the country since the pandemic began, but the sacrifices of many people helped stabilize Auckland’s outbreak, while vaccination rates improved.
Ardern pointed to the low mortality rate, a growing economy and high vaccination rates, saying, “We are in a better position than almost anywhere in the world over the past two years of COVID-19.”
Traffic light systems are designed to indicate that outbreaks are straining the health system. A green designation imposes some restrictions, orange requiring more mask wear and away, while red borders collecting shapes.
Ardern had set an ambitious goal of fully immunizing 90% of all eligible people in each of the 20 health districts before moving to the new system in October.
But with nearly 85% of New Zealanders aged 12 and older fully vaccinated, Ardern decided it was time to step up.
Last week, the government announced that the nation would reopen its borders to the world in the coming months, allowing the return of displaced residents from January and tourists from April.